Abandonment of Haybridge Road Section Tabled

A decision on the abandonment of a section of Haybridge Road by the St. Joseph County Road Commission (SJCRC) has been delayed pending review by Florence Township officials. The section under consideration runs eastward from Sevison Road, and ends at a condemned bridge over the Fawn River. On the other side of the bridge, Haybridge Road continues past a connection with Block Road, and ends at Engle Road. That section would remain active if the abandonment goes through.

 SJCRC Managing Director John Lindsey announced the section in question was under consideration for abandonment at a board meeting last September. At that time, Lindsey said he intended to seek input from the township, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, utility companies, and other relevant parties for input on the decision. The proposed abandonment was precipitated by a petitioner who owns property adjacent to the road section.

At a public hearing which took place during a regular meeting this past Wednesday, Lindsey provided details on the events leading up to the proposed abandonment. In 2004, after and determining the bridge needed significant work to remain in operation, SJCRC staff and board who were in place at the time sought and were awarded funding to replace the bridge. The existing bridge design was no longer in compliance with current flood management regulations, and since the work required complete replacement, the new bridge would have had to follow an entirely new design.

That design necessitated a 100-foot span between abutments, significantly longer than the existing bridge, and a new alignment following a different angle. This, in turn, would have called for relocation of the roadway approaches on either side. When it appeared as if the relocated roadway would sacrifice some of the adjacent landowner’s farmland in favor of wetland on the other side, the landowner declined to grant permission to move the right-of-way. SJCRC did not pursue eminent domain. The replacement work did not take place, and the awarded funds were returned.

In a final inspection in 2008, the bridge was condemned. Then, in 2014, the Federal Highway Administration notified SJCRC that because the bridge had been out of service for more than five years by then, it was no longer eligible for Critical Bridge Funding, an important tool for funding the kind of work the bridge required. Loss of the designation was permanent, meaning that replacement of the bridge would function from a financial and regulatory standpoint as if an entirely new road were being built.

Nearby bridges on Dickinson and Sevison Roads still permit motorists to cross Fawn River, and properties abutting the section in question all have other access points. Traffic on the section of road is limited to recreational users accessing a St. Joseph County Parks and Recreation (P&R) canoe and kayak launch next to the closed bridge, and to people who use the road to access the riverbank for illegal parties, bonfires, and camping. Speaking at this past Wednesday’s SJCRC meeting, the petitioners called the road an “attractive nuisance.”

On Wednesday, Florence Township Supervisor Tim Carls voiced comments about the proposed abandonment. By law, the township has a right to consider whether to take over the road section prior to abandonment. On Wednesday, Carls said abandonment would be premature because the township board had not yet issued a decision on that question.

Because assuming ownership of the road would also entail taking on its maintenance as well as assuming liability for the condemned bridge, Carls said the township is unlikely to vote in favor of taking the section over. Under the proposed abandonment, the petitioners would agree to assume liability for the bridge and would take responsibility for removing it.

Carls was also joined by Road Commissioner Vince Mifsud in expressing concerns about the canoe launch. Mifsud said river recreation is a major driver of visitation to the county and was joined by several other commissioners in asking about P&R’s position on the launch. Lindsey said he spoke to the parks department’s director, Jaymes MacDonald. According to Lindsey, MacDonald said the launch is not heavily used. In recent years, Lindsey said, P&R was not investing much into the launch’s maintenance, prioritizing others nearby. Lindsey said MacDonald was fine with the proposed road abandonment.

Should P&R decide to continue to maintain a launch at the location, the petitioners volunteered on Wednesday that they would be willing to permit the agency to construct a new launch on their property on the other side of the river, where the roadway is not proposed for abandonment.

Also at issue is whether SJCRC loses an opportunity to ever Mifsud said once SJCRC gave the road up, it would lose the route permanently. Because the road is built on a right-of-way rather than on property owned by SJCRC outright, its ownership would revert to the adjacent landowners once abandonment took effect. “If he plows the road under, it’s gone, and we will never get it back,” Mifsud said. SJCRC also receives around $2,850 in annual revenue from tax contributions pertaining to the road mileage.

Other road commissioners, including SJCRC Chair David Allen, said the liability for the bridge is an important consideration. “If we don’t abandon this, we have a structure that is fading fast,” Allen said. After lengthy discussion, commissioners voted Wednesday to recess the public hearing and table a motion on abandonment to permit the Florence Township Board time to make a formal decision on whether to assume ownership of the road.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.