CHARLEVOIX — Shaded miniature golf holes at Boyne Rapid Adventure Golf may soon resemble open, sun-soaked fairways.
Charlevoix County 33rd Circuit Judge Richard Pajtas on Friday denied a preliminary injunction sought by the Boyne City business’ owner against DTE Energy, a utility company that intends to cut down his trees.
Brian Williams wants to halt the utility’s plans to remove between 16 and 20 trees from his mini golf course. Williams planted the trees more than two decades ago, but within an underground natural gas pipeline easement.
Williams contends the removal of the trees will harm his business, where shade trees help provide the desired atmosphere for a mini golf course.
DTE cited safety and maintenance concerns when officials showed up to remove the trees last month, so Williams took the fight to court. He won a temporary retraining order last month, but Pajtas refused to issue an injunction last week during a show cause hearing in a Charlevoix courtroom.
Pajtas also lifted the temporary retraining order.
It’s a matter of public safety versus speculative financial harm to the business, the judge said.
“The scales are tipped in favor of the public safety,” Pajtas said.
Boyne City attorney Joel Schraw, who represented Williams and his business, argued DTE’s plans will impact the aesthetics and atmosphere at the mini golf course. He further said the utility’s argument that the trees present a safety concern is disingenuous, particularly since the trees have been there for 23 years.
“These trees, your honor, are not saplings,” Schraw said to Pajtas on Friday. “These are trees that cannot be relocated.”
Notice that the trees could be problematic should have come years ago, before the trees grew to maturity, he said.
Detroit attorney Leland Prince represented DTE at the hearing. He argued it was Williams’ responsibility to investigate the details of the pipeline easement first recorded in May 1968, or 20 years before Williams bought the tract.
“I don’t know why he wasn’t aware of the specifics of the easement,” Prince said. “Trees were planted within the area of the easement without any consideration for Michigan statutes.”
There also is a water hazard and a bunker that lie within the easement. Both must be addressed in the future, Prince said.
Prince cited multiple cases in Michigan and elsewhere in which lightening strikes to trees planted in close proximity to gas pipelines sparked the flammable infrastructures and caused both severe property damage and risk to public safety.
Williams and his lawyer questioned whether public safety is a real concern in this case and Prince pointedly argued it is.
“It’s not something that is supposed or speculative. It’s real,” he said. “This harm far outweighs any potential harm to the golf course. The harm to the golf course ... is speculative.”
Pajtas agreed, but not without underscoring the importance of trees to property owners, even if financial compensation is received.
“These are beautiful trees and to remove them in exchange for a monetary consideration doesn’t really restore the aesthetics,” Pajtas said.
Ultimately, Pajtas ruled in DTE’s favor.
“There is no dispute the easement prevents the planting of trees,” he said.
Steven Rawlings, DTE regional manager, said after the hearing the trees will come down, but he doesn’t know how quickly. He also said he sympathizes with Williams about the trees, but it’s a matter of state and federal laws designed to maintain safety standards and maintenance access.
“While we’re pleased with the outcome, our job is not any more pleasant,” Rawlings said.
Williams said he’s not done with this fight.
“Our attorneys are going to look into some other things,” he said.
“We haven’t thrown in the towel,” Schraw added.