East Bay Township Planning Commissioners voted 6-1 in a marathon five-hour meeting Thursday to back a proposal by Rotary Camps and Services to open the former 500-acre Camp Greilick property for public recreation, camping, educational courses and special events. Plans for the property — now called Greilick Outdoor Recreation and Education Center, or GO-REC — then head to township administrators for final approval.
After the Boy Scouts terminated their lease in 2016 for Camp Greilick after decades of using the site, Rotary Camps and Services developed a new plan for the renamed GO-REC property on Scout Camp Road, aiming to provide the same types of camping, outdoor education, recreational programming, and access to trails, woodlots, and lakes that had been available there for nearly 100 years—only this time for the general public. Rotary Camps and Services plans to offer not only overnight camping – a use already approved for the property – but also day uses, allowing the public to come hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, kayaking and playing disc golf on site without having to spend the night. These types of daytime uses require township approval. GO-REC staff also plan to offer lessons — such as wilderness first aid lessons and hands-on lessons in different recreational sports — and partner with groups like Norte and the Vasa Ski Club for programming. on the spot. Additionally, special events like weddings, conferences, and races would be permitted on the property.
In December, Rotary Camps and Services appeared before the Planning Commissioners with a Planned Unit Development (PUD) application – or a zoning plan tailored to a specific property – to allow GO-REC to house all these different uses. At this meeting and subsequent meetings, planning commissioners pointed out many issues that Rotary camps and services should address moving forward, ranging from parking plans and septic system capacities to preventing the spread of invasive species and the potential impacts on noise and traffic events. Nearby residents have been particularly alarmed by plans to hold large events at the site, forming a non-profit organization called Save Forest Lakes and garnering around 250 signatures via an online petition opposing PUD approval. .
At Thursday’s meeting, Gayle McGregor — a Williams, Williams, Rattner & Plunkett attorney representing Save Forest Lakes — said GO-REC is surrounded by a “very low-density residential area,” making its proposed uses incompatible. with surrounding neighborhood and East Bay Township Master Plan. She said allowing the public to bring outside watercraft would spread invasive species into Lake Rennie and argued that a conservation easement on the property had been designed to protect it from commercial use. She said GO-REC’s plans were a “direct contravention of the township ordinance.”
But GO-REC legal counsel and some planning commissioners disputed this characterization, noting that many of the proposed uses have already taken place on the site for decades and that PUDs are permitted in the township ordinance specifically. to accommodate creative uses on properties that a zoning code might not otherwise anticipate. Attorney Jeffrey Jocks, representing Rotary Camps and Services, pointed out that only non-motorized boats will be allowed on Lake Rennie and will first pass through a boat cleaning station before entering the water. Only overnight campers and course participants will be able to bring their own watercraft onto the property, with a maximum of 60. GO-REC plans to maintain its own fleet of kayaks and canoes on site for the public to borrow.
A significant portion of Thursday’s public comment period – and the planning commissioners’ deliberations – was devoted to special events at the property. After much back and forth, planning commissioners finally agreed to allow up to 20 large-scale events at GO-REC each year, defined as those with 100 to 420 guests. Within these 20 events, up to 12 weddings can take place between May 1 and October 31. However, planning commissioners have added a condition that large-scale events cannot take place on back-to-back weekends, in a bid to provide neighbors with a break between big summer events. Professional sound and traffic studies have determined that noise and traffic safety should not be issues at the site, especially since most buildings and gathering spaces are located within the property, away from neighboring plots. In addition to 20 large-scale events, GO-REC can host up to 30 medium-sized events per year (30-100 guests) and smaller classes and events (1-30 guests) per day. Any major races or transitional events – those exceeding 420 guests – would only be permitted on a case-by-case basis with township permit approval.
The Planning Commissioners added several other conditions that the GO-REC must meet to retain PUD approval. These include obtaining all other necessary approvals from outside permitting agencies, obtaining state approval on an environmental remediation plan to remediate an old firing range on site , maintaining a state campground license, keeping events within the capacity of available on-site parking spaces, and limiting event attendance at the Besser Lodge to 200 until the septic on site be upgraded. Planning Commissioner Judy Nemitz has consistently opposed PUD approval despite these conditions, saying she believes approval would set a “pernicious” precedent that would spur other Forest Lakes resorts to sue. more intensive use. She said the “intensity and frequency” of GO-REC’s intended uses were inconsistent with the township’s zoning.
But the other six planning commissioners disagreed. “We have this opportunity, we have this gem here in our township,” Planning Commissioner Renee Edly said. “I also completely respect the neighbours… but I feel like we’ve worked really hard to strike a happy medium. And I think that’s a good thing.” Planning Commissioner Carl Ferguson , agreed, saying he initially had concerns about the former firing range and the scale of the proposed events, but said the council “has worked to mitigate them, at least to my satisfaction”. Planning Commission John Sych said the PUD was an “appropriate re-use of a parcel, of this land where there has been a history of outdoor activities. He added: “I think it’s pretty unique…I think we’re lucky to have something like that in the community.” Sych said plans for GO-REC — a property that includes 4,300 feet of shoreline, a 1.5 acre pond, open fields, wooded wetlands and pine and hardwood forest, as well as ‘an extensive network of trails, a campground and recreational infrastructure – would make amenities accessible to residents who otherwise might not have access to them.
Although many neighboring residents strongly criticized the council’s vote during public comments, Sych reminded the public Thursday that GO-REC still has “a lot of work” to do to meet the conditions imposed on the PUD. The application also still needs to be approved by the township administrators, to whom it now goes for final approval. “It’s not the end of the process,” Sych said. “It’s a major step, but it will continue.”