Three Rivers City Commission discusses future of Hoffman Pond 

Pictured is the “high-hazard, poor-condition” Portage River Dam, which contains Hoffman Pond, and was the main topic of conversation at the Tuesday, March 19 Three Rivers City Commission meeting.

At a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday, Three Rivers City Commissioners heard comments from the public on the fate of the locally-loved Hoffman Pond. 

The pond, or impoundment, is contained by the Portage River Dam, which is “in need of repair or removal,” according to City Manager Joe Bippus. The topic was brought before the commission because grant funding of $500,000 is available from the State of Michigan for either repair or removal of the dam, with a requirement of a $50,000 match if awarded. Watershed Voice reported in 2020 on the state of several local dams including the Portage River Dam.

More than 10 residents, most of whom live along or near Hoffman Pond, voiced their support of repairing the dam to keep Hoffman Pond in place. 

Christine Hartzell, who lives near the pond, spoke about the pond’s history, the diversity of birds, fish, and other wildlife it hosts, and the recreational value it holds for the community. “I would hope we will take this opportunity to preserve Hoffman Pond and expand access to this lake for everyone and enable more generations of people in Three Rivers and St. Joseph County to enjoy the water recreation and wildlife habitat Hoffman Pond provides.” 

Some residents mentioned their willingness to participate in a special assessment district, which would generate funds from properties surrounding Hoffman Pond to contribute to future operations, maintenance, and periodic capital projects in relation to the dam.

Many residents stated their displeasure with the current owner of the dam, Monroe E. Learn, claiming the dam and surrounding areas have fallen into disrepair since Learn took ownership, and attempts to work with Learn have been unfruitful. Bippus said the owner has been in communication with the city because Learn lacks the funds to pay for the repairs himself.

Bippus added when the grant opportunity arose, the city had been “sort of pushed to the front of the line” in terms of taking on responsibility for the dam after conversations with the St. Joseph County Commission and Jeff Wenzel, the county drain commissioner. Commissioners expressed surprise when it was shared that Learn had submitted the application for the grant on his own and had claimed the city would pledge the matching funds of $50,000, and agree to take ownership of the dam. City Attorney T.J. Reed said he could find no record of such a pledge or agreement being made.

Bippus further clarified that the grant, which city staff had only recently become aware of, was closing the application process the following day. Commissioners agreed that more information was needed regarding cost, liability, insurance, the role of the county and the state, the potential ownership transfer, and more, before taking any further action. Depending on action that is taken to mitigate risk in the near future, the grant may be available to apply for next year.

Addressing questions of cost, Reed said, “Right now no one has any idea what those costs [for maintenance and the special assessment district] would be long-term.”

(Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

Thomas Horak, a representative from the Dam Safety Unit of the Water Resources Division at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) arrived to the meeting late, but answered questions from commissioners on the “high-hazard, poor-condition” dam. In absence of the grant, he said, “We do need to see some action [from the property owner]. We’ve asked for plans and haven’t seen much follow-through.” If the owner doesn’t take steps, such as drawing down the lake level for dam repairs and clearing trees and brush, to mitigate risk within a “realistic” timeline, EGLE would “have the authority to step in” and complete the repairs. 

In other business, the commission…

  • Approved payment of $2 million to American Axle & Manufacturing as the final step of a Community Development Block Grant through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The city acted as a fiduciary through which to execute the payment. 
  • Received a public comment from two representatives of the Get Ahead of Lead initiative, which provides water filters in areas affected by lead in the water.
  • Approved the acceptance of an additional $75,000 for the MI-HOPE (Michigan Housing Opportunities Promoting Energy-Efficiency) Grant, which will be allocated to three applicants the grant was unable to fund in the original round. This funding was made available due to Three Rivers being a “high performer.”