Portage Twp. residents protest proposed zoning change
PORTAGE TOWNSHIP — Several Portage Township residents protested along U.S. 41 Saturday morning at the site where a potential zoning change would allow for seaplane operations.
The Portage Township Planning Commission will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday on the change, which would amend the zoning ordinance to allow the operation of fixed-wing aircraft as a special use within the B-2 district. Currently, it would only be permissible within M-1 (manufacturing). The B-2 district already allows landing and take-off areas for rotocraft.
Susan Schwenk, who organized the protest, said a future seaplane operation would generate too much noise in nearby residential areas and disrupt a bald eagles’ nest nearby.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize the extent of this,” she said. “We are here to protect that beautiful bald eagles’ nest, the residential neighborhood, the peace and quiet of the neighborhood…. It would be a legacy decision once it went in.”
Richard Vollwerth, who lives three houses down, also opposed the change.
“I just don’t want the constant noise,” he said. “I want to be able to fish, I want to be able to do all that fun stuff. Put it somewhere else.”
Isle Royale Seaplanes owner Jon Rector said he had a tentative deal in place with the developer to open if the zoning is approved. The seaplane business would start operating there in summer 2023.
Isle Royale Seaplanes had a three-year lease at its Ripley site that expired in 2020. The site owners have plans to expand their core business of marina and cabin rentals.
The U.S. 41 site, which includes the Onagaming Yacht Club building, offers more room, and being on one of the main routes into Houghton, more exposure, Rector said. Developers are also looking to develop complementary businesses on site, such as a restaurant at the Onagaming building, Rector said.
The move would also give the seaplane a larger area in the water to work with, Rector said.
“We’re obviously on the canal and a place where it’s relatively narrow, so it only gives us a few options in terms of takeoff and landing direction, vis-a-vis wind direction,” he said. “So down in Portage Lake, we would have multiple directions to operate just depending on which direction the wind is blowing,” he said.
Addressing the eagle issue, Rector said he had spoken with the Midwest eagle coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who told him while the eagle is still protected, its habitat is not.
“She said there is absolutely no issue with development in an area where there’s an eagles’ nest — none whatsoever,” he said. “She said the eagle is very resilient. If they have to move from that place, they’ll find another nearby place.”
Schwenk and others said they found out about the process after Isle Royale Seaplanes, now located in Ripley, preemptively changed its address online last year. Bill Fink, a Portage Township trustee who visited the protest Saturday, referred to the move as “arrogance.”
“They just figured, ‘Oh, it’s Portage Township, they’re a bunch of hicks, they’ll roll over,'” he said. “And they didn’t count on the fact that we have zoning, and that we enforce our zoning.”
Rector said he had changed the address after an earlier finding from the township’s zoning administrator that the seaplane operation was effectively the same as a helicopter operation, which is included in the uses for B-2. The process came back to the planning commission level after it was found the township had not sent notification of the zoning change to the county planning commission, as required by state law, Rector said.
“There’s already an activity in that zoning district that is louder than seaplanes, and I guess they just don’t get that,” Rector said. “That is a like activity. And boy, wouldn’t they be upset if there was a helicopter operation there. Think of the tour helicopter that we see at Bridgefest doing a takeoff every 10 minutes or something like that.”
The township later reached out to the Houghton County Planning Commission, which acts in an advisory capacity on township zoning questions. It received no response.
In April, the county board approved a waiver of the 30-day comment period.
Rector said he anticipates a maximum of 12 takeoffs per day, which would generate noise in the area for about 45 seconds to a minute. Isle Royale National Park’s management plan restricts the number of flights to the island per day to eight, Rector said; if anything, he expects any future changes to the plan would make it more conservative.
Other flights would come via sightseeing tours and tours given to visitors from the Viking cruise ships visiting Houghton this summer. Those flights would not occur on the same days, Rector said.
Isle Royale Seaplanes’ rezoning request for a former seaplane site in Houghton was voted down by the its city council in 2019. Fink said he would like to see the seaplane operation move to the Houghton County Airport, noting that the seaplane company operates out of one at its other site in Minnesota.
Fink said he was most concerned about preserving the Onagaming Yacht Club building, which dates back to 1925.
“This is a pristine example of an early 20th-century northwoods supper club, which is a special social construct of the north country,” he said. “The Onagaming is just a beautiful untarnished example of what that operation was, so that needs to be addressed in the site plan review.”
Rector said the developer’s preliminary plans call for the Onagaming building to include a restaurant, while Isle Royale Seaplanes would also have office space there. A maintenance hangar, docks and boat ramp would also be built onsite. The developers also plan for about six additional housing units, some of which may be incorporated into the main building, Rector said.
“I think the main thrust is to get the zoning done, and then we’ll have the next year to work on the details of the plan,” he said.
The City of Houghton was notified of the potential zoning amendment, as the Nara Nature Park is less than 300 feet from the affected site. It has taken no position on the change.
If the township planning commission approves the amendment, it would still need to be approved by the township board. A separate process would also be necessary for a seaplane operation, including a site plan review.
Schwenk said even if the zoning ordinance is changed, she will continue to fight “as long as it takes.”
“This is the neighborhood I have lived in for 30 years,” she said. “I’m protecting my neighborhood, the wildlife and the nature park.”