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Double Wetland Duty

Local governments forced to take up state's enforcement slack

March 1, 2001 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Antrim County, northeast of Traverse City, knows its future rests not on new highways and malls, but on the fate of its natural resources, especially great stretches of soggy ground.

With 25,000 acres of wetlands, 28,000 acres of lakes, 26 miles of Lake Michigan coastline, and the Jordan River — the first protected under the state Natural River Act — Antrim County has some of the wettest, wildest, and most prized real estate in northern lower Michigan.

Protecting the county's clean water, however, is a challenging matter of keeping its all-important wetlands, which soak up rainwater and filter erosion, alive and well.

"This county takes its responsibility to protect natural resources seriously," said Pete Garwood, the county's planner and coordinator. "Our economy and quality of life depend on it."

Antrim County never anticipated, however, that one of its toughest foes would be the very agency charged with safeguarding the state's natural resources: The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. Environmentalists have long criticized the Engler administration's DEQ for lax environmental enforcement. But even many of Governor John Engler's supporters in Antrim County were furious when the DEQ gave its stamp of approval in August, 1999, to a pair of landowners trying to build a house on an undisputable wetland. Local officials were powerless to intervene despite a clear violation of the law. The Antrim County Board of Commissioners issued a stinging letter of protest that called the permit approval "a violation of the letter and intent" of the state wetlands law.

Antrim Takes Charge
With its population surging and construction industry booming, Antrim County's conservation-minded leaders decided to end their reliance on state regulators for wetland protection. They wrote a local law that allows them to step in when the DEQ won't and override the agency's decisions when its officials refuse to obey state law. In doing so, Antrim's leaders joined a growing chorus of community officials across the state who say they can no longer rely solely on state government to do the wetland protection job that taxpayers fund and that state laws mandate.

Antrim County's board of commissioners is likely to approve its proposed wetland program this spring, making Antrim the first to have a county-wide wetland protection ordinance. Already 36 townships across 14 counties have approved similar rules. In addition, Clinton Township in Macomb County and Spring Lake Township in Ottawa County are working on new wetland ordinances.

"We've heard over and over that the state is protecting our wetlands," said Pepper Bromelmeyer, an Antrim County planning commissioner. "Well, if we think about that for a moment, we know that's just not true. Travel for one hour south of here, and the rivers run brown during a rain. Travel two hours south of here, and the rivers run brown all year round. One of the main reasons for this is loss of wetlands."

State Shifts Burden
Surprisingly, the DEQ notified Antrim County that it welcomed the new wetland ordinance, which it said would give overwhelmed state inspectors desperately needed help in the field. The agency is suffering from staff reductions, poor morale, and top-level decisions to encourage sprawling growth and industrial development by weakening natural resource protections.

Antrim County has seen its share of the state's new policy to let damaging development slide by the rules.

In 1996 the DEQ promoted natural gas drilling in the county's 22,500-acre Jordan Valley Management Area, a publicly-owned wildlife and recreation area, where the state had since 1975 prohibited industrial development. Public outcry forced the DEQ to stop.

In 1997 the DEQ approved a Shanty Creek Resort proposal to ruin wetlands and use the county's magnificent Cedar River as a water hazard for a new golf course despite clear prohibitions in three state environmental laws. It took a citizens group, Friends of the Cedar River, and a court-ordered injunction to overturn the DEQ's decision.

Enough is Enough
A third clear case of the DEQ's failure to enforce the law finally convinced Antrim County to draft its own zoning rules to safeguard wetlands. Indeed there has rarely been a wetland case like the one involving Janet and Vonebar Veit.

It all began in 1991, when the couple from Davison spent $8,000 to buy a lakefront lot on Intermediate Lake in the center of Antrim County's world-renowned Chain of Lakes. The price was so low because it was impossible to develop the lot to its $100,000 potential without violating the state's wetland law.

Efrain Rosalez, Antrim's soil erosion control officer, told the Veits that under Michigan's 1979 Wetland Protection Act they needed a permit from the state to fill, drain, or develop the property. The Veits instead built a winding driveway through the wetland. The Department of Natural Resources ruled that the 1991 construction was illegal and ordered the Veits to remove the driveway. But for reasons that are still not clear, the DNR did not enforce the order.

The matter was quiet until the fall of 1998 when the Veits surfaced again with a plan to build a house on the wetland. They applied for and received a wetland permit from the then three-year-old Department of Environmental Quality, a new agency that Gov. Engler had carved from the natural resources department. DEQ Director Russell Harding has come under attack from his own staff, county and township officials, and newspaper editorial pages for his record of undermining environmental statutes, especially the wetlands act. Mr. Harding dismisses the criticism, arguing that the state is performing its sworn duty to enforce environmental statutes.

No More Stand-Offs
Perhaps no one in Antrim County looks forward to the new ordinance more than Mr. Rosalez. On August 9, 2000, he stood eye to eye with a construction crew intent on putting a pipeline across wetlands near the Veit's property. The pipeline was part of a septic system that the Veits said they needed to develop their property.

Mr. Rosalez warned the crew that, without a proper soil erosion permit, they were about to break the law. The crew ignored the warning, claiming the work was a wetlands issue, that the state had given its permission, and that local government had no wetlands authority. The crew repeated the claim and kept on working even after a deputy from the Antrim County Sheriff's Department pulled in to back up Mr. Rosalez.

Finally, hours later, after the Antrim County prosecutor secured a formal order from Circuit Court Judge Philip E. Rodgers, the crew halted construction and has not resumed since. If Antrim County's proposed wetland ordinance had been in place, Mr. Rosalez would have had a powerful legal tool to assert his authority and prevent the confrontation altogether. "The idea is to have a stronger say in what happens to wetlands in our county," he said. "The ordinance will help."

CONTACTS: Pete Garwood, 231-533-6265, garwood1@freeway.net; Efrain Rosalez, 231-533-8363, effy77@hotmail.com; Pepper Bromelmeyer, pepper.bromelmeyer@mi.usda.gov.

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