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Environmental > News Hits

As the marsh churns

 

Published 9/8/1999

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week halted a developer’s attempt to build homes and a golf course at Humbug Marsh along the Detroit River, but the controversy concerning the property is far from over.

In refusing Made In Detroit a permit to develop 409 acres in Gibraltar and Trenton, the Corps agreed with environmentalists who contend the project would severely damage the marsh and island ecosystem.

Made In Detroit’s lawyer, Saulius Mikalonis, says they will seek a reversal of the decision via the corps’ appeals process. If that doesn’t work, he says, MID officials say they will take the issue to federal court.

If it goes that far, Mikalonis says, company officials would have to decide whether to ask a federal judge to reverse the decision or to sue for hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, arguing that the decision amounts to an unconstitutional "taking" of property.

Made In Detroit CEO Bill Merriweather said in a written statement, "It is a clear violation of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It proposes the illegal taking of private property without due process or compensation to the owners. It sets a dangerous precedent for all developers and property owners throughout the nation."

Merriweather, who along with other MID owners is African-American, also said that he saw racism behind the corps decision.

Environmentalists praised the ruling, hailing it as an important step toward saving a wildlife haven along the heavily developed shoreline and the last high-quality wetland on the river’s Michigan coast. But Pat Hartig warned that the ruling, could be reversed.

Hartig says she and other members of the group Friends of the Detroit River learned their lesson when the state Department of Environmental Quality, having rejected MID’s request for a wetlands permit last year, agreed to issue a permit for MID’s modified plan for its development earlier this year.

Michigan United Conservation Clubs and Friends of the Detroit River are suing DEQ for issuing the permit, claiming the decision violates state environmental laws. MID is helping to defend DEQ’s decision in court.

University of Michigan Environmental Policy Professor Barry Rabe says it is unusual for the corps, which normally takes a more pro-development stance, to reject a permit already approved by the state.

"It raises questions about whether the (corps) is misreading the law or is suddenly becoming more aggressive than it should be, or whether DEQ is following the letter and spirit of the law," Rabe says.

MID CEO Bill Merriweather said, "The corps issued permit approvals last year on 100 percent of the applications which had already been approved by the MDEQ. We have already been approved by the MDEQ. This is clearly a racist attempt to stop African-Americans from achieving the same economic equality afforded to those other permit holders."

However, DEQ has come under heavy fire from a variety of environmental groups and even some of its own staff for not adequately enforcing wetlands regulations.

The corps offered to help MID devise a scaled-down project on approximately 150 acres farther away from the shoreline than originally proposed. MID spokesperson Tina Bassett says a project meeting the corps specifications wouldn’t be economically viable.

"The only thing that would make this valuable as a residential upscale luxury development is that you provide the amenities to create that," Bassett says. "If the army corps had its way, we would lose two-thirds of our property and have maybe 175 homes, with no water view and no golf course. … If you take those away, then we’re facing a steel plant."

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