Friday, August 15, 2008

Access Key to Tri-Cities Greatness

From the August 14, 2008 Grand Haven Tribune

August is a great time to be in the Tri-Cities. It is a delightfully lazy month between the frenzy of Coast Guard Festival and the return to the routines of another school year. It’s a great time for local residents to enjoy what the Tri-Cities has to offer

But sometimes I worry if common local residents are in danger of losing access to the things that make the area so great. The idea came to me when I recently read a review of a book by Barbara Ehrenreich, “This Land is Their Land: Notes From a Divided Nation.” Ehrenreich is known for her earlier book, “Nickel and Dimed,” about the struggle to make a living on minimum wage. The book was adapted as a play and performed at Grand Valley State University this past spring. Her new book makes the case that the wealthy in our society have slowly been robbing common folks of access to the truly beautiful places in our country. “If a place is truly beautiful,” she opines, “ you can’t afford to be there.”

Ehrenreich speaks from her own experiences traveling in places like Jackson Hole and Key West. Mansions, she complains, have taken up most of the scenic spots. These may be select and extreme cases, but I wonder if the potential for such a scenario is possible in Grand Haven and Spring Lake. We don’t have mansions on the order she is talking about. But there certainly has been an increase in the number of large homes and condos, including those that are merely second-homes for the wealthy who only are here a few weeks of the year. We are not adding public space at the same rate.

Take water, for example, which is perhaps the greatest asset of our community. We all live in proximity to a great lake, as well as Spring Lake and the Grand River. And we all have access to each waterway. But when you think about it, there is only one small public beach on Spring Lake, and a pay launch facility and park in Ferrysburg with no swimming. There are about a half dozen area DNR ramps and parks on the Grand River. As for Lake Michigan, most of us are limited to state, county, or township parks. All of that is great, but boat ramps don’t provide access to people without boats. And as the area—not just the Tri-Cities, but the communities nearby whose residents make day trips to the beach--becomes more populated, there’s a danger that access will be denied to people who arrive at full parks.

We recently had friends in town from Virginia. We advised them to drive down Lake Shore Drive on their way from our home to visit family in Hudsonville. But we had to explain that the road offers few actual views of Lake Michigan, because most of the property there is privately owned. Waterfront homes include large wooded acreage between the lake and the public road. The view is blocked; access denied. Owners have that right, and have paid a pretty penny for the privacy, of course. But a part of me is saddened to think of hard-working locals of modest means who can’t steal a glance of God’s given glory because some wealthy family from Chicago had to sequester the “cottage” they visit a few weeks a year behind majestic oaks.

In Hawaii they have a policy that requires any new private hotel or condo development on the water to include a public access easement. They are an island state, with plentiful waterfront. But the policy is a good one, and one that could be considered here.

Ehrenreich points to other effects of mansions mania in hot spots around the country. Huge homes have led to inflated home prices throughout the local market where they are built, as well as higher rents. I would add that higher tax assessments could be an eventual consequence of the proliferation of new condos and homes in our community. I shudder to think that these increases might force long-time residents of more modest accommodations to relocate.

The impact doesn’t stop with just the housing market. The influx of seasonal and permanent residents with deep pockets often leads to an increase in boutique shops, fine dining and other amenities. While that sounds nice and will no doubt be a shot in the arm to the local economy, it will be troubling if the local market gets out of balance and caters too much to the cashmere class. There needs to be a middle ground between escargot and cheeseburgers, between Wal-Mart and Armani.

We do have a wonderful place to live. Each evening, I feel grateful as I look west toward the setting sun and enjoy the pastel hues of a summer sky. But with more condos rising into that sun set scene, I worry a little too.

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