ACRC will run trial before adopting Eben Ice Caves road

“We never knew that this could even be considered an option. If there is a way for the road commission to plow these extra roads, how can we move that forward, because we would love to have something in place.”

Teri Grout, Rock River Township Supervisor

The Alger County Road Commission (ACRC) board voted to not immediately turn a new paved and private road in Rock River Township into a county road, but will facilitate plowing for the winter in the latest action of a controversial development near the Eben Ice Caves.

In a 2-1 vote, the ACRC reached a compromise of providing plowing services for both a 0.3-mile stretch of an improved seasonal road and a 0.2-mile stretch of private road. The road goes to a parking lot that is on private property and significantly shortens the hike to the ice caves.

“I get both sides. This will help out emergency response to get their vehicles down there more easily, but I’m worried about the precedence this set,”ACRC Board Member Marci Taskey said.

At just a half a mile, the road itself was made in multiple phases. The Rondeau family, which operates as an LLC for the road improvement, and the ACRC created a joint effort to improve a seasonal road at the end of county road Frey Road for 0.3 miles. While the two parties agreed to split the costs evenly, the estimate provided by the ACRC was under the cost. ACRC funded the remaining balance with no official explanation given for why the estimate was so low.

The Rondeaus then used the specifications provided by the ACRC to build the remaining 0.2 miles through Gerou Excavating, but the ACRC board had concerns about whether or not the projects were similar enough to make it an official county road.

“I think we got to wait and see what happens with the frost is gone,” Hubbard said. “We’ve all laid asphalt and had it not turn out the way we expect it. Waiting to see how it’s done after the winter is the right call.”

Both Taskey and Hubbard voted to do a one-winter trial, but ACRC Chair John Hermann voted against it. He advocated for the road to be immediately adopted by the commission.

“I think it should be a county road. It’s beneficial to the county to have this extra piece of road here and we should be taking on projects like this,” Hermann said.

Using county resources to plow the private road also sparked concerns, with local government officials questioning how plowing services were contracted. According toACRC Engineer Bob Lindbeck, the road commission only plows for three other groups: Luce County Road Commission for a stretch of land near Grand Marais, Schoolcraft County Road Commission for overlaps with H-13 and the Village of Chatham. Those two commissions and the municipality pay the labor and fuel costs for the plowing service without any surplus profit for the ACRC. At the last ACRC board meeting in November, it was pointed out that the county has also used its resources to plow out limited parking spots near the Swajanen property at the end of the original Frey Road for people going to the ice caves and for easier access to the Chatham Ski Hill as a reason for why the new public/private stretch of road should be plowed. While the plowing for the Swajanens was built into a former agreement between the landowners and the ACRC, Rock River Township has never paid for the seasonal road to the ski hill to be plowed, so they will have to start paying for plowing.

“We never knew that this could even be considered an option. If there is a way for the road commission to plow these extra roads, how can we move that forward, because we would love to have something in place,” Rock River Township Supervisor Teri Grout said.

While there were questions about the road, multiple members of the public against the project believed that the plowing would also include the parking lot. Jim Rondeau said at the meeting that while ACRC plow trucks were welcome to turn around in the parking lot, a separate bid would be awarded for through a private company.

“We’ve got a couple bids returned, but we haven’t awarded a bid yet,” he said at the meeting.

Numerous people took time in public comment to state that adopting the private road would be a dangerous and inconsistent precedent. ACRC staff cited a previous ACRC board decision to not adopt a paved road for a housing development near Shelter Bay, while other members of the public said the ACRC could pick winners and losers by supporting some private road improvement efforts over other ones. Proponents of the adoption said that there would be little to no change in the resources used to plow the road compared to the existing parking area and that Gerou Excavating used the same specifications to build the private stretch of road.

In addition to the many procedural concerns about precedent, the project has been highly controversial at a personal level. Arguments on whether or not the Rondeaus informed the Swajanens about the plans to improve the road in a clear and open way triggered strong opinions about the balance of casual handshake agreements between neighbors and the necessary documentation to satisfy local government requirements.

Personal experiences with the families involved sparked extreme divide in Rock River, including false or misleading posts in local Facebook groups against the project. Posts leading up to

ed the difference between the improved seasonal road and the private road once on the Rondeau property and falsely advertised that the parking lot would also be plowed if the road was absorbed by the ACRC. Others are holding the Rondeaus responsible for pointing out the plowing of the ski hill and the cost the township will incur because of it.

Two of the Rondeaus involved in the LLC — Mick and Matt Rondeau — have both made comments about potentially developing the land further to include rustic camp sites and cabins around the parking lot. These comments were said in arguments to those already questioning the Rondeaus’motives, but said in public places in front of dozens of people, which added to the confusion of why the property was developed. Jim Rondeau, who has taken the lead on public communications for the family LLC, has said that the project is just about the parking lot. The current zoning ordinance for Rock River Township would not allow a resort or campground on that parcel.

According to Jim Rondeau, the parking lot will operate with a donation system to help offset costs to plow the lot.