Seaplane base hits permitting issue with dock

HUBBELL — The state is working with the owner of the new Isle Royale Seaplanes site to reach a solution after a dock permit issued last year was found to have been for the wrong category. 

The business announced in March it would be relocating to Hubbell this year after its lease at its previous site in Ripley had expired. 

The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy approved a floating dock for a site in December. However, the project description asking applicants to select all categories that apply lists private use, but not commercial. 

The site’s owner, Bill Siler, said he had told the inspector of the site it was being used for a seaplane business. His application for the permit also mentioned them, saying in the project summary, “The reason for the project is mooring and launching sea planes.”

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” he said. “I talked to every agency before this was done. Applied for the permits, got the permits. We talked to the individuals at every agency.”

EGLE staffers said they had not known the dock would accompany a commercial seaplane base. Because the Water Rights Division only covers development up to the ordinary high-water mark, it did not have jurisdiction upland, said Hunter King of EGLE’s Marquette office.

“At the time that it was applied for, it was applied for as just a floating dock under private ownership, so it was unknown to us at the time that a seaplane base was going in there,” he said.

The dock permit is in limbo pending a separate campground permit, King said. The campground permit is being sought for housing at the site being used for seaplane workers.

The distinction between commercial and private makes a difference in how applications play out. In the case of commercial docks, that triggers a public notice, said EGLE public information officer Jeff Johnston. That could also be followed by a public hearing, if people request one, he said. 

Johnston said it hasn’t been determined what an eventual resolution would look like.

“We’re working with the owner now, we’re talking with him,” he said. “That’s where things stand now, is trying to come to a resolution that respects everyone’s rights and adheres to the conditions set out in the permit.”

Isle Royale Seaplanes owner Jon Rector said based on what he has heard, he does not expect the situation to delay the start of his operating season, which begins May 19. 

“Unless EGLE drags their feet substantially, I don’t see that affecting us,” he said. 

Several residents criticized the lack of public notice at a Torch Lake Township meeting last month. They also voiced concerns about noise and the work’s disturbance of the remediation cap on stamp sands at the former Torch Lake Superfund site.

Johnston said EGLE was also looking at the remediation situation.

Siler said Monday he had already restored the cap on about 75% of the project area. The remainder should be covered shortly after planting season begins, he said. 

The seaplane operation would include eight flights a day during the summer. The most noise comes from takeoffs, lasting about 45 seconds, Rector said. 

Rector said the planes would not cross the shoreline until they were at least 500 feet off the ground. That is stricter than the requirements, he said, which exempt takeoffs and landings from the 500-foot limit. He said he is also willing to alter flight paths when possible to avoid specific properties upon request.  

“You compare this space to where we have operated on the canal, and it’s a much better environment,” he said. “There’s much more room for us to be able to stay away from homes.”

On the noise issue, he said given how close most homes in Hubbell are to the highway and the snowmobile trail, the seaplane noise most residents would experience would be comparable to what they hear from passing trucks or snowmobiles.

“All winter long they hear snow machines going up and down that trail that are much louder than the airplanes are,” he said. “It’s a red herring.”

Torch Lake Township Supervisor Brian Cadwell said he had not known about the seaplane business until hearing about it in February. Because the township lacks zoning, at this point the township’s role is just ensuring that the necessary permits and applications were applied for and approved, he said. 

Beyond that, the township does not have input into EGLE’s permitting process, Cadwell said.

“It’s in their hands right now,” he said.


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