Anglers of the AuSable will assume fish hatchery operations after prolonged legal battle ends
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
A four-year legal arm wrestling match over increased fish production at the Grayling Fish Hatchery ended last week as the lease for the facility was transferred to the foes of the fish farmer who operated the hatchery for a half of a dozen years.
The Crawford County Board of Commissioners, at its regular monthly meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27, approved an assignment and assumption of lease agreement for the historic property.
Effective Jan. 1, 2019 the lease held by the Harrietta Hill Trout Farm, LLC, a Michigan limited liability company, will be transferred to the Anglers of the AuSable, a Michigan nonprofit corporation.
In May 2012, Dan Vogler, the co-owner of the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC, and the Crawford County Board of Commissioners entered into a contract for the operation of the Grayling Fish Hatchery to keep the 104-year-old community attraction open to local residents and tourists. Before entering into the contract, the Grayling Recreation Authority informed county officials that it no longer wanted to oversee fish hatchery operations because it was a financial loss.
Harrietta Hills planned to increase fish production at the hatchery year round.
A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit was required since Harrietta Hills planed to increase trout production from 20,000 pounds per year up to 100,000 pounds per year.
Harrietta Hills hoped to gradually increase production to levels where 300,000 pounds of trout were produced year round.
Crawford County was the landlord and a party to a lease dated Aug. 28, 2014 to operate the facility to keep it open to visitors and tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
The Sierra Club and Anglers of the AuSable filed petitions for a contested case hearing on the permit approval. Further, the Anglers of the AuSable filed a lawsuit in Crawford County Circuit Court to stop the facility on other grounds, including the state’s refusal to uphold deed restrictions on the facility and violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act.
C. Heidi Grether, the director of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), announced her decision on May 1 of this year to grant the permit to Harrietta Hills Grayling Trout Farm to expand its hatchery on the East Branch of the AuSable River.
A pre-trial conference was scheduled to be held in Crawford County Circuit Court on Thursday, Oct. 4.
But Crawford County and those involved in the ligation were parties of a binding agreement from a facilitative mediation dated Sept. 19, pursuant to which the Anglers have agreed to assume all of Harrietta Hills Trout Farm’s interest and obligations as tenant under the lease.
Instead of incurring more legal costs, all three parties to the lease approved the agreement. The Anglers of the AuSable will pay the Harrietta Hill Trout Farm, LLC $160,000 to walk away from the operation.
“The state’s issuance of this permit was a green light for a commercial fish farm operation to pollute the AuSable River, plain and simple. Such permits, and such operations, have no business being located on one of the most popular wild trout streams in the world,” said Anglers of the AuSable President Joe Hemming. “We are happy to have the case settled and look forward to working closely with the local community to improve the Grayling Fish Hatchery as a tourist attraction and historical landmark. Today is a new chapter in the life of this historic facility.”
Vogler said his family had to give up on plans to operate at the fish hatchery in a sustainable manner.
“It’s an unfortunate reality. We were forced to make a business decision in order to move forward as a company,” he said. “We settled and we’re going to move out of the facility and move out of the community. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is.”
Vogler said his agreement with the county delivered a solution to keep the facility open as a tourist attraction.
“I think folks by in large have been happy with the way the hatchery has been run,” he said. “Unfortunately, you have a well-funded downstate interest group that wanted us gone and that’s what they got.”
After notifying four Crawford County residents that they were out of a job last week, Vogler said he did not see this as a win for the community.
“I don’t think that it’s good for Grayling,” he said. “I know certainly it’s not good for the folks on our team.”
Finally, Vogler added that his business could not stand and fight another day in court.
“If we were a big company with deep pockets, maybe we could have stuck around a little longer. We’re a small, family run business, and we don’t have those types of resources,” he said. “It takes a lot of money to prove you are right. We never had an environmental problem there. We did our best for six full seasons.”
The settlement saves the river from thousands of pounds of fish waste, and resultant algae blooms and decreased dissolved oxygen. It reduces the risk of disease, escapement and invasive species.
Under the new pact, the Anglers of the AuSable has created a new nonprofit entity, Grayling Hatchery, Inc., which will take over the lease, as well as the responsibility for the Grayling Fish Hatchery. Visitors will be able to view and feed trout, as well as learn about the history of the facility, and the famous wild trout fishery of the AuSable River.
“Fewer trout. More history. More education. We believe that the Grayling Fish Hatchery is an important historical landmark, not a commercial fish farm operation,” Hemming said. “This was the intent of the 1995 deed between Crawford County and the State of Michigan when the state decided to cease operations there in the 1960s. We intend to honor the deed and the wishes of Crawford County and to make the facility both safe for the river and worthwhile to the community,”
The Anglers of the AuSable will reinvest in plans to achieve fish passage between the main river and the upper East Branch, which is currently blocked by the Grayling Fish Hatchery. Such fish passages allow trout to migrate to cool water refuge, to spawn, and to diversify gene pools.
Vogler gave up on plans for the fish passage, which he gained grant money to create, since the Anglers and other groups couldn’t come to an agreement over how the fish hatchery would be operated.
The agreement secures the interest of the Anglers of the AuSable and prevents another fish farmer from potentially leasing the facility.
“Hundreds of Anglers of the AuSable members from around the world donated sums both large and small to this cause. Anglers of the AuSable could not have prevailed without that generous support,” Hemming said. “In the end, this case demonstrates yet again the enormous and global reverence anglers, river lovers, and conservationists have for Crawford County’s crown jewel – the river itself.”
In other related developments regarding the fish hatchery property, the county board directed County Administrator Paul Compo to move forward with plans to have the land surveyed.
In recent years, Munson Healthcare Grayling Hospital has expressed interest in obtaining land adjacent to the hospital to expand its operations.
“They want the property because they are landlocked and they want to expand,” Compo said.
If an agreement is reached, the hospital will move some of the modulars on hospital property and the Mobile Medical Response Ambulance building would be relocated. The hospital then could proceed with expansion projects.
The county would quit claim a deed for the property to the state, then the hospital would have to come up with an agreement to obtain the property.
Dave Stephenson, the chairman of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said the survey should not be too costly since previous surveys have been done on the property and a new one would entail updating the property description.