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Citizens Fight Stormwater Subsidies for Developers

Lawmakers may raise drain taxes

November 9, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

A steady drumbeat for an end to costly, damaging sprawl is growing louder and stronger in Michigan. Local voters in several areas of the state threw out growth-at-any-cost leaders on Election Day and put a new generation of Smart Growth commissioners in charge. The media, too, is picking up on the increasing taxpayer lament that the price of subsidizing and cleaning up after private sprawl investors is becoming too much to bear.

Yet all ears in Lansing are apparently stuffed with cotton balls. Behind the Legislature's doors, where real estate industry lobbyists stand full-time guard, the majority of lawmakers have been spurring, not curbing, the breakneck pace of strip mall, freeway, and subdivision development. One technique for doing this without much public attention is to add new sprawl-promoting features to old, boring laws. In 1996, for example, Governor John Engler signed into law one of the state's greatest gifts to land speculators: A revamping of the Subdivision Act that makes it easier to split up and sell off parcels.

This week the Michigan Legislature is poised to once again tweak an old law and speed up sprawl's spread across the state's landscape. This time it's the Michigan Drain Code, perhaps the most antiquated and obscure land use law in the country. This 19th-century statute has become a convenient and hidden means for pushing wasteful, damaging development. Originally designed to make marshy land good for farming, the law now gives local officials, called "drain commissioners," the power to shift developers' stormwater management costs off on local residents.

Incredibly, the Michigan Senate is expected this week (Nov. 28) not to fix the Drain Code but to expand its corporate welfare reach. House Bill 4803, which the House has already approved, will increase the tax-and-spend power of county drain commissioners and keep local families from doing anything about it. If state senators approve this legislation they will set Michigan on a perilous course for the 21st century. Private development companies and the government officials whom they support with campaign contributions will continue to abuse their power, under the Drain Code, to fleece the public and skirt environmental regulations. They will also continue to ignore scientific facts that spell out smarter and cheaper ways of managing stormwater.

A case in point is the Mill Creek drain in Lapeer County, east of Flint. The county drain commissioner and the Michigan Department of Agriculture plan to charge local families $4 million to straighten and dig out the cattail-filled creek so it can move more stormwater. Hundreds of people have protested the cost and scope of the project, which would prepare thousands of acres of low-lying land for development by providing high-capacity stormwater drainage at their expense. The local drain commissioner does not have to listen to the people he will tax, however, because the Drain Code gives him absolute authority to decide how to maintain and improve drains. That means he has no obligation to even compare the costs and benefits of his $4 million plan with a $200,000 alternative that local citizens and river restoration experts developed.

In a rare win for the people, however, a judge last year ordered MDA and the Lapeer County drain commissioner to try the public's low-cost plan. It took local residents 10 years of raising money with bake sales and $100,000 in legal fees to defend their bank accounts from the drain commissioner's taxing power. But now the results are in.

Mill Creek does not need $4 million worth of dredging and straightening to drain better. In fact, erosion problems from past dredging are the main reason Mill Creek needed help. The low-cost alternative of protecting vegetation on creek banks, which dredging destroys, and pulling stumps and other blockages from the water is working to turn Mill Creek back into a reliable drain for agriculture. That may not meet developers' stormwater needs, but local residents don't believe they should foot that bill.

If the Michigan Senate passes H.B. 4803, however, drain commissioners across Michigan will have no incentive to pay attention to the Mill Creek story. Some will. But most are fixated on building bigger, faster drains to handle the rush of stormwater runoff coming at them from the parking lots, driveways, and roads of newly developed areas. And they will get by with the high price they can charge local residents because H.B. 4803 does nothing to put the financial burden back on development, which creates the higher stormwater drainage needs.

H.B. 4803 continues the undemocratic Drain Code tradition of leaving citizens with no reasonable way to appeal high drain taxes. And it preserves the power of drain commissioners to tear up local residents' property ¾ even public lands ¾ for the sake of more strip malls and cul-de-sacs.

Drain Code abuses must stop. The only way to do that is to stop H.B. 4803 and start over with a clean slate to design smart stormwater management for Michigan.

Patty Cantrell is an economic analyst and editor at the Michigan Land Use Institute, a nonprofit Smart Growth organization based in Benzonia.

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