Commissioners discuss county trail master plan

Published 4:10 pm Thursday, November 17, 2022

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Commissioners got their first look at a new county trail master plan at their meetings Thursday morning. The plan is expected to serve as a blueprint for future trail development in the county and could be approved by the county board later this month. 

Friends of Berrien County Trails President Gary Wood and planner Marcy Hamilton of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission presented details of the new plan to the county board at their Committee of the Whole meeting early Thursday. The Friends group has been working on the plan for the last year. 

Wood reported the trail master plan was developed with funding support from 22 of 39 municipalities in the county along with other organizations. The plan was developed after input from local governmental leaders, other stakeholders and the public. The public input came about through open houses and surveys. 

“This plan sets us up to have a common vision of where we’re going based on the best information we have now,” Hamilton said. She noted that 71,000 county residents are within a five minute walk of a trail now and the goal is to have 104,000 people within a five minute walk of a trail as the plan is implemented. 

She reported that the 2,000 plus people who attended an open house or answered the survey said they want to see multi-use shared paths put in place that are separate from roads for safety reasons. They also want to see trails that are connected so they can get where they need to go by walking or biking, she said. 

“Several municipalities have trails in their own master plans,” she said. “Our goal is for them to incorporate this plan into their plans.” 

Wood said that key findings in the new plan, including completing more of the Marquette Greenway/Red Arrow/Lakeview trail corridor along Lake Michigan, creating an east-west trail corridor from Niles to New Buffalo, utilizing road shoulders when appropriate and encouraging wider use of trails. 

Wood said people are also in favor of extending existing trails such as the Indiana-Michigan River Valley Trail going north from Niles and connecting the Buchanan area McCoy’s Creek Trail north to the River Valley Trail as well as eventually making connections north to the Kal-Haven Trail in Van Buren County. 

Hamilton said the next step is implementation and sharing the trails master plan with residents and local municipalities. “Some families want to get out and bike to specific destinations,” she said. “This plan will provide tools for local communities to evaluate what they’re doing and how to plan for more trails.” 

They said the next steps include getting 100 percent support from the county and local governments through the passage of resolutions of support. Those resolutions will make a difference in getting grants from the state and federal governments as well as community foundations. 

Trail maintenance remains a major issue, they acknowledged. They said the plan will give municipalities the information they need as will the new county trail policy adopted by county commissioners earlier this fall. 

County Administrator Brian Dissette said the new trail master plan will be presented to county board committees and possibly the county parks and road departments before coming back to the full board for action. 

In action at Thursday’s regular board meeting, a number of resolutions were adopted to accept grants, approve staff changes and leases, purchase property next to Madeline Bertrand County Park and set final tax millage rates. 

Madeline Bertrand County Park which is located at the stateline south of Niles received a $300,000 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund grant in 2021 to buy 33 acres of land next to the park, with the local match being $110,800. Thursday’s action confirmed the purchase and acknowledged that the true cash value of the land is $700,000. 

The millage rate action acknowledged the new local millages approved by voters in the Nov. 8 election. Those millages includes ones for road improvements in area townships. 

The county board approved extending the medical examiner contract with the Western Michigan University School of Medicine for 90 days as a new long term contract is worked out. That organization provides medical examiner services for 13 counties in western Michigan. The current contract expires Dec. 31.