Boathouse controversy

MARQUETTE – Waves of controversy are mounting in the city of Marquette over a proposed boathouse that would be built on a stretch of beach-front land in south Marquette.

The Marquette City Commission will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday in room 103 at Marquette’s city hall to discuss the Upper Peninsula Community Rowing Club’s proposal to build a community boathouse and launch facility at a location just south of Gaines Rock in the Founders Landing area of the city.

The boathouse – which received city support in April by a 6-1 city commission vote to have a license prepared for the building – would store the rowing club’s boats as well as those of Northern Michigan University’s crew clubs, and would have extra space for private citizens to rent storage space for their boats.

The building, which would be below grade and ground, would include restrooms, locker space, an area for the club’s rowing machines and showers. It would be paid for and owned by the rowing club, while the land it would be on would continue to be owned by the city. Ongoing maintenance of the building would be the club’s responsibility.

Commissioner Sara Cambensy cast the lone no vote, saying she did not support any type of development in that area of the city.

That’s a concern shared by Marquette Citizens for Lakeshore Preservation, which has collected 129 signatures as of this morning on its petition against the building.

Rita Hodgins, representing the MCLP, said the club could build a boathouse in other areas and that there is a community perception that the boathouse plan flew under the radar and was pushed through quickly.

“The conclusion is there are people involved who could make this happen,” Hodgins said, citing two members of city staff and one city commissioner with family in the rowing club.

Marquette City Manager Bill Vajda, whose wife is on the club’s board of directors, said he has recused himself from all discussions of the boathouse. He said because he offers recommendations to the city commission, he felt uncomfortable becoming involved in any capacity.

City Commissioner Dave Campana said as one vote of seven, his family’s involvement with the club is not an issue. Campana’s wife is also on the board.

“There is no conflict of interest,” Campana said.

He said the proposed building would not obstruct the view from the bike path and would not make any part of the beach inaccessible to the public.

“I understand not wanting to put a building there, but this building is going to be built into the hill, so you won’t be able to see it,” Campana said, adding public space will remain in tact. “They use the water, not the beach.”

City attorney Ron Keefe, whose wife is a boater in the club, said there was no conflict of interest with anyone involved.

“If you owned a construction company and your spouse was on the board and we were doing business with that construction company, that commissioner would not be allowed to vote on the contract,” Keefe said. “We don’t have that at all in this case, not even close.”

Keefe said, as city attorney, he had already given the go-ahead for both Vajda and Campana to remain involved in boathouse discussions, since there was no legal issue.

“The city manager – at an open commission meeting – said he wasn’t going to take any part in this matter because of his wife, even though in my judgment it doesn’t create any conflict whatsoever,” Keefe said. “In another open meeting, I gave the opinion that Commissioner Campana had no conflict under our charter or state law, so that was the end of it…

“Many people in this community belong to all kinds of organizations, and if that were the test no one would be able to do anything,” Keefe added.

Kelly Drake Woodward, the rowing club’s president, said it is not unusual for the city to allow non-profit organizations to build on public land, citing the YMCA and MooseWood Nature Center as two examples.

Hodgins stressed her group is not opposed to the rowing club, but would stand opposed to any type of development in that area.

“We would like to go into Wednesday’s meeting on a very positive note,” Hodgins said. “We have nothing against this group. It has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with a building on this waterfront.”