‘Everyone loses’ if HLUA agreement cannot be reached

The Higgins Lake Foundation is submitting this letter in furtherance of its mission statement: “Promoting ecologically sound projects and programs for the protection of Higgins Lake and its surrounding watershed!” As chair of the Higgins Lake Foundation, I would like to comment on the proposed project to connect the North Higgins Lake State Park to the HLUA (Higgins Lake Utility Authority) Wastewater Treatment Facility near Higgins Lake.

First, some background information to put things in perspective:

In 1922 Dr. Clifford Curnalia of Roscommon was instrumental in convincing the State of Michigan to give a 64-acre parcel of land on Higgins Lake to the American Legion. It was to be used as a campground for the recreational enjoyment of World War I vets.

In 1970 the American Legion gave the land back to the state, and the state leased the land to the legion for $1 a year. The stipulation was that the property could be used only by veterans, their spouses and descendants.

Over time the number and size of residences expanded. (There are currently 405 cottages on the property.) With increased development, problems occurred with water wells being contaminated by septic systems, and contamination from these systems began to filter into Higgins Lake.

In 2000, plans were developed to create a wastewater treatment facility that would serve the immediate needs of residents of the American Legion and also provide room for expansion. The U.S. Congress, through the Environmental Protection Agency, awarded nearly $1 million for the project.

Between 2006-2007, to facilitate construction of the sewer system, the state transferred ownership of the 64-acre Camp Curnalia-American Legion Grounds to the newly formed Camp Curnalia Cottage Owners Association. The association, comprised of American Legion residents, gained ownership of the property in Lyon and Beaver Creek townships.

In addition, the state gave 60 acres of land in Crawford County to Beaver Creek Township for the proposed wastewater treatment site. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources also recommended transferring another 30 acres to Beaver Creek Township if the treatment site needed to be expanded in the future.

The estimated cost for the sewer system was $5.9 million. In addition to nearly $1 million in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funds, the project was awarded a $355,000 grant from the state and $39,000 in Higgins Lake Foundation grants. A bond issue was proposed to bring in an estimated $761,727 in local matching funds, and an anticipated loan from the state at 1.625% interest would finance the $5.1 million balance.

A Higgins Lake Utility Authority (HLUA) with representatives from the two townships and the Camp Curnalia Cottage Owners Association was established to oversee operation of the sewer, and construction of the wastewater treatment facility was completed in 2009.

In 2014 a study funded by the Higgins Lake Foundation and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reviewed wastewater collection and treatment needs for the near shore areas of Higgins Lake and looked at the feasibility of utilizing the HLUA Wastewater Treatment Facility which operates at about 30% of its capacity.

In 2015, on the basis of the study, the HLF granted $36,000 to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for modifications to improve its wastewater treatment facility at the Higgins Lake North State Park and to connect the North State Park facility to the HLUA facility.

Which brings us to the present and an issue of concern to the Higgins Lake Foundation:

At their Dec. 16, 2016, meeting the HLUA board passed a motion (4-1) that the HLUA accept a $160,000 buy-in for the North State Park hook-up to the sewer system. Beaver Creek Township approved this proposal, and it was accepted by the state.

We understand at its Feb. 15 meeting, Lyon Township proposed that the state’s buy-in would be a substantial increase over the state estimate agreed upon by the HLUA, Beaver Creek Township and the state, and therefore, Lyon Township did not want to join in this project. In furtherance of our mission statement, we feel it is crucial that wastewater management be advanced to protect the lake. We urge the state, the HLUA, Lyon and Beaver Creek townships to work together and reassess the cost estimates and find a workable solution to take full advantage of the resources available to protect the future of the lake and its waters.

For their part, the state must compare the costs of connecting to the HLUA facility to the expense of upgrading and operating its own facility. Ultimately there is no real value to the excess capacity of the HLUA Wastewater Treatment Facility unless someone is willing and able to pay for it, and the North Higgins Lake State Park is ready to do that.

Camp Curnalia residents have an opportunity to benefit from the $160,000 buy-in fee and a sharing of maintenance costs. The state initially donated land to the American Legion camp and the HLUA Wastewater Treatment Facility and also made a substantial financial investment towards the sewer construction (as did the Higgins Lake Foundation).

This proposal to tie the North State Park into the under-utilized HLUA sewer would benefit individual property owners, Michigan taxpayers and the water quality of Higgins Lake. If an agreement cannot be reached, everyone loses.

Vicki Springstead