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Published: Tuesday, 12/10/2002

Property owners vow continued fight to close public road to Mallory Lake

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

PITTSFORD, Mich. - When the Hillsdale County Road Commission decided to abandon portions of Nye Road, residents fighting to keep public access to Mallory Lake open began to celebrate.

But the battle over access to the southern Hillsdale County lake is far from over.

A pending lawsuit by the property owners who want to close the road remains in Hillsdale County Circuit Court. They have promised to continue their fight.

“My clients are not going to acquiesce simply because the road commission abandoned the road,” said Gary Haffey, an Alma, Mich., attorney who represents the landowners. “My clients will not tolerate that.”

For generations, residents have used the sandy shore at the end of Nye Road to gain access to Mallory Lake. Area residents have used the lake over the years for swimming, boating, and fishing.

But that access was threatened when the Alma, Mich., family that owns the land initiated proceedings to fence off the property.

Land owner Eloise Mitchell and her family sued the road commission in June, 2001, saying that Nye Road, which dead ends at the lake, is a private road. After fighting the lawsuit for more than a year, road commissioners decided last week to grant a petition by area residents to abandon the southern 279 feet of the road, including about 50 feet of land.

Road Commission Manager Stan Clingerman said the board approved the abandonment because it still gives the road commission plenty of room to turn around its equipment without being forced to purchase additional land. That means the commission could continue to maintain the road, Mr. Clingerman said.

The land now reverts to the township. Township officials at last week's road commission meeting said they plan to decline taking over care of the road when they meet tomorrow, allowing it to become state property.

At the same meeting, Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials said the department would take on maintenance of the lake access.

According to Gary Towns, the department's supervisor for the Lake Erie Management Unit, the state had been investing in stocking the lake with several types of fish between 1934 and 1945. When the state stocks a lake with fish, those waters are forever open to the public for fishing, he added.

“Public access in southern Michigan, especially in southern lower Michigan, is a premium,” Mr. Towns said. “We know that those waters are the waters of the state. We know that those fish are the fish of the state.”

The public's right to the lake is what remains in dispute. The property owners have argued that because the lake is not navigable, there is no guaranteed public access.

“My position is that the DNR can't take ownership of that area because they can only take over a road that provides public access,” Mr. Haffey said. “Whether we pursue litigation against the road commission or whether it is against the DNR, it's still the same legal issue.”

Despite the probability of a continued fight, residents are hopeful that they will still be allowed access to the lake. Georgia Wollett has enjoyed recreating and relaxing by the lake for most of her 76 years. She also spearheaded the petition asking the Road Commission to abandon the land.

She said she hopes the Road Commission's decision would deter the land owners from continuing its lawsuit.

“It's a big victory at this point and we are hoping that, yes, this is going to take care of it,” Mrs. Wollett said.



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