DNR stalls Marquette’s boardwalk plans
By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor
Marquette’s overlook and boardwalk project is once again meeting with interference. In November, the city explained that the Iowa DOT had deemed the project too complex and said it should go through state, rather than local, letting, which pushed the project’s start date from December to April. Now, said City Manager Dean Hilgerson, the DNR is holding up the permit for the boardwalk.
“We have reason to believe that one or two individuals are holding it up,” Hilgerson said. “It’s very apparent that this was set up from the beginning by a local witness.”
What’s at issue is the boardwalk’s length. Originally slated to extend into the water far enough so that people could see around the river bend, the DNR has proposed for the city to move the pier in seven feet and shorten the boardwalk 22 feet. According to Hilgerson, this would defeat the boardwalk’s purpose.
“If it’s shortened, you lose the magnitude of the project,” he said. “You need 140 feet to have the full view of the shoreline.”
Hilgerson explained the DNR said the length needs to be reduced, or else the boardwalk would leave too big of a footprint on the river. However, Hilgerson said the DNR has been unable to provide the city with an explanation as to what that means.
“There was a subjective decision to require us to shorten it,” Hilgerson said, “but the DNR’s having trouble coming up with a reason why we can’t have the full length. They’ve conveniently delayed processing because they couldn’t come up with a reason to deny.”
The city has not yet received an official denial from the DNR. The project can still be completed—just on the DNR’s terms. Project manager Tim Cutsforth, an engineer with H.R. Green, said Marquette even worked out a compromise, offering to move the pier back. That way, viewers would still be able to see the west bank of the river going north, where the river curves.
“[The DNR] didn’t buy it,” Cutsforth said.
Cutsforth said the permit process is like a pyramid. The permit ultimately comes from the Corps of Engineers, which is at the top. Below that is the Coast Guard, then the DNR, which has multiple pieces that need to agree in order to complete the puzzle. One of those pieces is sovereign lands, which is in charge of fisheries. That is what is holding up the permit.
Cutsforth said they have called fisheries to ask for a specific ruling, but have gotten nowhere.
“They’re not giving us any choice,” Hilgerson said. “It’s either accept their proposal or appeal it.”
Hilgerson said the appeal is a trial proceeding with an informal hearing that is more like a presentation. It will be administered by an administrative law judge. Cutsforth said it’s hard to know exactly what to expect because it has happened so rarely. However, Marquette City Attorney Jim Garrett said there’s a chance the city could get the judge to travel to Marquette. That way, the judge could check out the project location and see the area. It would also save on travel expenses.
“I think we have a solid case,” Hilgerson said. “They’re aware that they’re dealing with a city that won’t bow down and roll over.”
Hilgerson said the city is willing to pursue an appeal because of its importance to the public.
“We feel good because it’s for the public,” he said. “It’s not a private boat dock or a limited marina. What a beautiful place to come and enjoy what we take for granted.”
The council approved Hilgerson’s recommendation to move forward with the appeal process. Since the appeal process could take months, Hilgerson said he would also like to find out if the boardwalk project can be split from the overlook project. The overlook project—which includes bluff stairs that travel up the bluff to the overlook at the foot of Emma Big Bear Trail (the old bridge approach) and a shelter and overlook of the river—could then proceed this spring as planned.
The council also discussed Marquette’s plans for a new riverfront shelter, moving forward with the dock commission’s recommendation of a hexagonally-shaped shelter.
Although it’s not necessary, Hilgerson said he has brought in H.R. Green to engineer the project to make sure there are no issues with the elevation, drainage, etc. Aside from the shelter, the riverfront will also see parking lot and sidewalk additions.
“You don’t want to do a project of this magnitude without it being done properly,” Hilgerson said.
Hilgerson said the initial cost estimate is around $69,000—including engineering, electrical work and concrete work—but that costs could be lower depending on the bids the city receives. Mary Jo Pirc said the Action Club is willing to contribute $15,000 toward the project, with the possibility of more if this year’s flea market brings in more money.
Councilwoman Cindy Halvorson was concerned with the cost and questioned whether engineering was truly needed.
“It’s not a small project,” Hilgerson responded. “We’d be remiss to spend the money without engineering.”
“This project’s been thought about for a long time. Things change over the years and get higher,” said Mayor Norma Mason. “It’s time we replace it. If we’re going to put it in, it should be a nice one that will last years. The dock commission has put a lot of effort into this one.”