Northport Board Faces Recall Over Sewer Petition
Critics question project’s size, effect on future development
April 25, 2006 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Northport’s leaders believe the village must build a sewer system to protect its beach, marina, and Grand Traverse Bay.
NORTHPORT—Spurred by intense controversy over the price, size, and need for a proposed new sewer system in their community—as well as the process local officials used to approve the project—voters in this sleepy village near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula will decide next Tuesday whether to retain or recall seven members of their village board of trustees, who support the idea.
The project, which was approved via an unusual landowner petition process, would serve both the village, which sits on Grand Traverse Bay, as well as the largely undeveloped countryside north and south of here. Proponents say the system is necessary to eliminate water pollution along the town’s shoreline and protect Grand Traverse Bay, the town's and the region’s signature attraction. But critics say that the new system may not be needed, is too large even if it is, and that the village council broke the law during the approval process.
But the debate that has badly split this town of 655 year-round residents raises another, more fundamental question: If the town installs municipal sewers, how will it affect growth in the area? Recall supporters say extending the system beyond the village limits would encourage sprawling development outside of Northport Village. They also say that the system’s high cost—currently estimated at $11.5 million or approximately $15,000 per household or business—could drive away working people.
Most people who live here do agree on one thing: Northport desperately needs to stop shrinking and start growing again. Vacant storefronts and a struggling school district indicate that the once-vibrant community is in some amount of trouble.
Smart Growth proponents say that building a properly sized sewer system in Northport—a town that now depends on individual, often very old septic systems—would give it the added disposal capacity needed to allow new growth within the village. They also say that, if some of that growth came in the form of more-affordable housing, something which Northport and virtually every other town in this region lack, it could revive the fading community by attracting young and working families. Those families would buy from local businesses; their children would help boost enrollment in the local public school system.
A Sprawl Spreader?
Northport resident Chuck Carman, a recall leader, believes that the proposed sewer may be unnecessary and that its hefty price tag could stall growth. But, he added, a smaller, village-only system might win his support. The sewer system, as designed, could accommodate up to 750 buildings; it would service 575 existing units within the village and 130 existing units in the township, leaving room for another 50 future units.
But where additional units would be located—in the village, the township, or both, remains open to question. Mr. Carman dislikes that uncertainty, too.
“Maybe if there was something a quarter of the size and cost that would service downtown Northport and village areas,” Mr. Carman said, “I would support that, if there was testing to prove it was needed.”’
He added that, in its present form, the proposed system would be a boon for new, high-priced developments outside the village limits—which he said Northport does not need.
“It’s subsidizing wealthy developers with poor peoples’ money,” he asserted. “This sewer will lead the way for condo developments where tourists will come and spend money in Northport for two weeks or two months. If it was feasible for businesses here to survive on just two months of business, they would be here already.”
But Barb VonVoigtlander, a Northport Village trustee who is facing recall because she supports the sewer, said that Michigan Department of Environmental Quality rules for financing municipal sewers—funding that the agency manages through the State Revolving Fund—would prevent that.
“One of the conditions of the State Revolving Fund is that they don’t fund sprawl,” Ms. VonVoigtlander said. Besides, she added, there already is “a developer in the township and they are currently doing their own sewage treatment system.”
That developer, NM Investments of Royal Oak, is building the recently approved, 474-unit Timber Shores project along the Lake Michigan beach just south of Northport, in Leelanau Township. The current sewer proposal would not service Timber Shores but it would run near the property.
Ms. VonVoigtlander did not dispute that in the future that could change.
“We have no idea if in 20 years Northport will have the capacity to bring them [Timber Shores] on,” she said. “But, right now, that is not the plan.”
She also dismissed building a sewer just for the village as “penny wise but pound foolish.”
Wanted: More Testing
Ms. VonVoigtlander said that she did 18 months of research before coming to the conclusion that the village actually needs a sewer system. What ultimately swayed her, she said, was a Michigan State University Extension Service seminar she attended that explained how different soils have different drainage capacities.
She said that, based on what she learned at the seminar, “We can infer from the geology in our area that we don’t have good soil for [individual] onsite sewer systems because of slopes [toward the bay] and [non-absorbent] clay soils.”
Testing by Fleis and VandenBrink Engineering Inc., a civil engineering firm hired to perform a sewer needs and feasibility study for the town and township, seems to confirm that contention. The firm found elevated e coli bacteria and phosphorous levels in waters near Northport’s shoreline. E coli indicates the presence of human waste; phosphorous, which can lead to “dead zones” in lakes, is commonly found near older septic systems located in sandy soil—which are ubiquitous around Northport.
But some sewer opponents say the entire problem may be coming from the Northport Marina, which is located near where some of the testing was done. That is why, Mr. Carman said, it is crucial that an engineering firm formally study Northport’s need for a sewer system.
“If there was testing done that showed that indeed yes, we need a new sewer system, then I would be supportive,” he said.
But Jim Schiffer, manager of Fleis and VandenBrink’s northern Michigan office, said that testing of individual septic systems throughout an entire community is rare.
“This is just not done,” Mr. Schiffer said, “because of the level of effort needed to do the tests.” He estimated the project would cost about $100,000.
Mr. Carman said that cost—less than 1 percent of the $11.5 million price tag for the proposed system—would be money well spent, particularly if it indicated a sewer system was not necessary. He believes that his fellow residents would be happy to see the village pay for it: “You can’t just tell me I’m polluting without evidence. Show us that we need this sewer.”
But others say it is obvious that the village needs a sewer system. Ms. VonVoigtlander, for one, is convinced that the many old septic systems that are so close together and so close to Lake Michigan are the culprits that are threatening the big blue bay.
“I go back to the geology,” she said. “It always gives me my reference point and tells the story the best about what we’re doing here.”
Petitions Spark Lawsuit
Further firing the often heated discussions are accusations that the village council used unfair if not illegal means to establish citizen support for the proposal. Village officials sought approval of the project via petitions, sending individual forms to land-owning residents, the only ones allowed to sign them. The unusual process awards votes to landowners based on how much property they own. The village then redrew the boundaries of the proposed sewer service area to exclude neighborhoods where there was particularly strong opposition to the idea.
Ms. VonVoigtlander defended the petition process, claiming that it was the only way to include land-owning, seasonal residents who are registered to vote elsewhere. Mr. Carman, however, said that the petitions, the redrawing of boundaries, and other steps taken by both the village and the township violated the one-man, one-vote principle, excluded renters who are residents, and smacked of gerrymandering.
“Prior to this,” he said, “I didn’t believe that would be legal in America. Renters will feel the sewer costs as their landlords raise rents to compensate for the sewer price.” It is one more reason he pushed so hard for a recall. He said he sees next Tuesday’s vote as the most inclusive process yet to happen around the sewer issue: “In our recall election, everyone will have the right to vote.”
Mr. Carman and a number of other Northport residents sued the village, the township, and the boards of both units, but a local judge threw the case out, saying it would be a question for the state tax tribunal if and when the village and the township set the special assessment.
All of the controversy has apparently left some village officials on edge. Northport Village Administrator Greg King, who is not facing recall because his is an appointed position, flatly refused to answer any questions from an inquiring reporter.
“It’s gonna happen,” he insisted before hanging up the phone. “If I have to dig the sewer myself, it will happen.”
But Mr. Carman is not so sure. If the recall succeeds, citizens will have to elect a new village board, which could impose a moratorium on the project, which is slated to begin receiving money from the state’s low-interest, revolving loan fund as soon as this July.
“The recall is the only tool left to implement proper planning,” Mr. Carmen said.
Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at email@example.com.