Flying straight: Seaplane operators, residents weigh in on Hubbell project

Seaplane operators, residents weigh in on Hubbell project

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Construction is underway at Isle Royale Seaplanes base in Hubbell, which plans to launch summer operations to Isle Royale National Park. The Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy held a public hearing on the permit application for a commercial marina at the Hubbell base Thursday.

HUBBELL — Operators of the Isle Royale Seaplanes base in Hubbell and nearby residents weighed in on the project during a public hearing Thursday on a marina built for the plane.

Isle Royale Seaplanes, which had previously operated in Ripley, plans to operate out of the Hubbell starting this summer. The plane flies visitors to and from Isle Royale National Park.

Thursday’s hearing was held by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, which approved the application for five 10-inch diameter pilings and a 12-foot boat ramp in December. However, the original application was granted for private use, rather than commercial, which generated skepticism from multiple residents Thursday.

The commercial path also creates the option of a public hearing, which can be triggered by resident request.

“That’s why we’re having this hearing tonight is not to discuss the actual structures themselves — those were legally put in — It’s whether or not they can be used as a marina,” said Ryan McCone, EGLE’s Upper Peninsula district supervisor for the water resources division. “And so it’s not that anything was done improperly. The first time around there was simply a misunderstanding regarding what the purpose of the project was, and that’s why we’re here today.”

The commercial permit goes through a separate process, requiring EGLE to determine the marina will not adversely affect the public trust or riparian rights, and also that it would not unlawfully impair or destroy any waters or other natural resources.

By law, EGLE cannot base a permitting decision on widespread approval or disapproval of a project, said Cassie Abrams, who is in charge of EGLE’s water permitting in Houghton County. It also cannot take into account other factors such as noise, she said.

Thursday’s meeting included a question-and-answer session where a panel of EGLE officials took questions from viewers, as well as an open-ended comment section.

Residents expressed concern about the possible environmental impact of the seaplane on Torch Lake, given its past as a Superfund site. Jen Miner asked if there had been an environmental assessment done of the impact of the seaplane base.

“I just want to make sure that you know when we’re thinking about all of these environmental impacts that there’s a good plan in place for who’s going to be handling what because as someone who’s been here since all of the floods, and all of the other things that have happened in the area in the past five years, I think all of the citizens are just getting a little frustrated at the level of bureaucracy that comes in and how there’s no actual organization that’s taking responsibility or answering questions,” Miner said.

McCone said an assessment was not necessary for the permit review. Many of the issues surrounding the lake, such as temporary closures of swimming areas, are driven by stormwater runoff, McCone said.

Answering a question about fueling, Isle Royale Seaplanes director of operations Jon Rector said a portable tank will pull up alongside the plane and fuel it from the shoreline. In 10 years of operation, the business has not had a spill, he said.

Bill Siler, owner of the marina property, said at the start of Thursday’s meeting he believes the environmental impacts will be “next to nothing.”

“They allow these planes to fly to Isle Royale where everything’s protected and closely watched … allowing the commercial use of this ramp will help the economy,” he said. “It’s definitely not going to hurt. It also doesn’t compete with any of the other businesses.”

Many of Thursday’s speakers focused on the broader issue of the seaplane business, which residents feared would generate unwelcome noise.

“I don’t like having to shut my windows in the summer for a seaplane that is going in, and it’s longer than 40 seconds,” said resident Sarah Trevino. “It’s a lot and to have my weekends now be this is very disappointing. That’s why I live up here, to have this peace and quiet.”

Rector responded to the noise concerns, saying for most residents it would be comparable to what they heard from snowmobile or ATV traffic.

Rector said the seaplane operations would be between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., with eight flights a day through September. Most operations would end Sept. 21, though some sightseeing flights would take place into October.

Miner’s husband, Evan Miner, asked what impact the marina and the seaplane would have on boaters in Torch Lake. Rector said there had been no issues with boaters at the base at Ripley, where all traffic was located in a narrow part of the canal. Seaplanes have also operated at high traffic areas such as Seattle’s Lake Union, which is comparable in size to Torch Lake, Rector said.

Several residents also raised concerns the seaplanes would disrupt eagles nearby, echoing objections made to a previous attempt to locate the seaplane operation at Portage Pointe. Abrams said eagles had not come up on an initial screening for threatened and endangered species. There are no active eagles within 330 feet of the site, which would be prohibited under federal law, McCone said; other residents opposed to the project disputed the distance.

Another question dealt with whether the seaplane operations would conflict with nearby remediation work involving barrel removal planned for September near PCI. Abrams said the EPA had been notified during the original application in December, and did not have concerns with the placement of the marina. A turbidity curtain will also be placed around the remediation site to catch any sediment, Abrams said.

Several residents also spoke in support of the seaplane business, which they said

Visit Keweenaw Executive Director Brad Barnett said residents had valid concerns, but said Isle Royale Seaplanes’ record in flying to the park is stellar.

“They’re a very trustworthy organization that I know will be a great community partner in the township,” he said. “I just certainly encourage the community leaders and certainly the businesses that will be impacted positively by the operation of this commercial marina to come together and just really work out a solution that’s best for the community and all the stakeholders involved.”

People who missed Thursday’s hearing or had additional thoughts still have time.

They can submit comments directly at EGLE’s online portal by going to mienviro.michigan.gov/ncore/external/publicnotice/info/-3474895833560806151/details.

They can also mail comments to the EGLE Marquette District Office, ATTN: Cassie Abrams, 1504 W. Washington Ave., Marquette, MI 49855.

A recording of Thursday’s meeting will also be uploaded to EGLE’s YouTube channel.

The comment period runs until June 2.


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