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Commissioners Vote to Disband St Joseph River Harbor Authority

Posted on October 11, 2016

By John Matuszak, The Herald Palladium

After Dec. 31, Berrien County will officially be out of the harbor maintenance business for the first time in more than 20 years.

County commissioners Thursday approved a resolution that dissolves the St. Joseph River Harbor Authority as of Jan. 1, and turns the responsibility for dredging and other waterfront matters over to St. Joseph, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph Township, the communities that border the harbor.

Berrien County has been the local government body responsible for harbor maintenance since 1995.

County Administrator Bill Wolf proposed the dissolution of the Harbor Authority in May, explaining that the board had no actual authority over the property along the water, and acted only in an advisory capacity. The real authority for making zoning and land use decisions lies with the local governments, he said.

A local sponsor is required to receive federal dredging funds through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Berrien County has been handling all dredging, and it oversees permits, funding and contracts.

Wolf and Dan Fette, the county’s development director, said that their offices would be available to help local governments as they take on those tasks.

Commissioner Bill Chickering requested that the original resolution, which stated that the county had “difficulty” with harbor development, be exchanged for a document that read “The Berrien County Board of Commissioners has determined that the management of the harbor will be best served in the future by the municipalities surrounding the harbors.”

St. Joseph Mayor Mike Garey attended the meeting and thanked county officials for their two decades of harbor management. He said he was looking forward to continuing to work with the county, as well as St. Joseph Township and Benton Harbor officials, on the continuing development in the area.

Wolf said the decision to dissolve the Harbor Authority is not a reflection on its board, and the members would be recognized at a later time.

The resolution pointed out that Berrien has the only county-sponsored Harbor Authority on the west side of the state, with other harbors maintained by cities.

The county has run into snags recently in formulating plans for the harbor.

A plan was floated in 2012 by Berrien County to support dredge funding for recreational boating through special tax assessments on boat slip owners. The county spent more than $100,000 putting together that proposal, but the leaders of Benton Harbor, Benton Township and St. Joseph Township failed to act on the idea.

The county’s 2013 proposal to move commercial shipping from the inner to the outer harbor, to reduce dredging costs, ran into opposition from St. Joseph officials, who declined to endorse a $10 million federal grant request. Residents on the north side of the river also objected to moving commercial docks closer to their homes, over concerns about noise and traffic.

St. Joseph controls the zoning on the property across the river from Upton Arboretum, and also owns a strip of the land.

Since Wolf first brought up the issue, local officials have been meeting to discuss the possible formation of another harbor authority.

St. Joseph City Manager John Hodgson on Thursday briefed the Planning Commission on the harbor situation. He said that assuming the responsibility for sponsoring the dredging of the commercial harbor should not be a problem. But finding the funding for the dredging of lanes for recreational boating, which the federal government does not pay for, could be more of a challenge.

Hodgson told planning commissioners that other groups are taking an active interest in the harbor’s future.

Jeff Noel and Pete Colovos, with the newly formed Harbor Conservancy, are expected to address St. Joseph city commissioners Monday. The Harbor Conservancy is an offshoot of a harbor study completed by Andrews University students last year. The study envisions business and residential development along the waterfront.

The Andrews students have set up a gallery fashioned from shipping containers at Territorial Road and Fifth Street in Benton Harbor that displays the concepts they created for the Twin Cities harbor.

Source: The Herald Palladium

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