Milford Twp. sued over zip line denial at Camp Dearborn

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac – For decades, Camp Dearborn has been a rustic spot for city residents and others to enjoy activities ranging from golf to kayaking, but now the recreational facility is the subject of litigation between Dearborn and Milford Township.

The Wayne County city is suing the Oakland County township for refusing to approve a zoning variance needed to build a zip line over part of the Dearborn-owned camp, which opened in the 1940s.

About 40,000 people a year visit the 626-acre park, which contains six lakes, a golf course, and day and overnight facilities.

According to the city’s complaint, filed in Oakland Circuit Court, Dearborn announced a feasibility study for the camp in November 2012 with proposed improvements including campsite upgrades, 16 new resort cabins, an RV storage area and improved water and beach facilities.

Also envisioned was the zip line. Under the city’s plans, the non-motorized recreational device would allow riders, with the help of gravity, to make like Tarzan and glide down a cable from a six-story tower to a lower point 1,400 exhilarating feet away, over trees, sand and water.

“This has been part of the improvement plan for about five years,” said Debra A. Walling, an attorney for Dearborn. “We have spent a considerable amount of time and money to make this happen, and now the rules have been changed. We don’t think that’s right.

“This is something that will be quite an attraction,” she said. “Now they’re talking about how it would violate a noise ordinance and other matters. We have spent considerable time and attention to make sure this is safe. And I don’t see how the sound of people riding it – unless it’s shouting out in joy – in the center of a 626-acre park could be disturbing to anyone.”

Permitted uses in the township ordinance include archery ranges, driving ranges, ski facilities, toboggan runs and playgrounds.

Milford Township Supervisor Donald Green said the township zoning board of appeals isn’t the only thing blocking the zip line. So is state law, which now defines zip lines as an “amusement ride.”

“In the last few years, our ordinance (for recreational districts) will not permit carnival or amusement rides,” said Green. “And about eight weeks ago – because of concerns for safety and need for inspections – the state Legislature also modified zip lines as an amusement ride.”

On Feb. 8, responding to the growing popularity of and safety concerns about zip lines, the State of Michigan Corporations, Securities and Commercial Licensing Bureau began requiring zip line owners and operators to obtain licenses and safety inspections under the state’s Carnival-Amusement Safety Act.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 23, the township planning commission notified Camp Dearborn that approval of a zip line would require a variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals. In April, the board voted 5-1 to refuse the variance.

According to the lawsuit, Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly Jr. appeared before the Milford Township planning commission more than four years ago, in February 2013, to outline the park improvement plans – including the zip line – and $6 million in investment envisioned over a five-phase redevelopment.

In May 2013, the lawsuit says, the Dearborn City Council approved a $225,000 budget to build a “zip line attraction.” Sites were picked out and soil samples and borings done to determine suitability for the zip line.

The city also contracted with Detroit Edison to move ground electric and communication lines from the main beach, at a cost of $18,000

The lawsuit asks Judge Daniel O’Brien to reverse the township’s April 2017 decision and order that Dearborn can construct the zip line or remand the project back to the zoning panel for further consideration.

The lawsuit also seeks damages in excess of $25,000 for lost revenue, costs and attorney fees.

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