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Northport Sewer Dispute’s Hard Lessons

Small communities need independent, conflict-free expertise for big projects

February 5, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

NORTHPORT—Another chapter unfolded in the ongoing Northport sewer debate last week when roughly 100 people gathered at the Community Arts Center to attend a Michigan Department of Environmental Quality public hearing for a groundwater discharge permit for the controversial Northport sewer.

The story in Northport is all too common in the region: A downtown dotted with closed storefronts, a public school struggling to keep its doors open—and leaders and residents who understand that building a badly needed sewer system would allow the town to enjoy more local business and residential development and make it eligible for state affordable housing funds. That, in turn, would bring more year-round residents to the village, boost school enrollment, and help local businesses.

But, as Northport discovered, deciding to build a sewer is one thing, while successfully figuring out a correct size and design is quite another. In fact, the size and design of the final proposal triggered a huge controversy, one that continues today. Some sewer opponents were so angry at the Northport’s village trustees that they organized a recall election last spring. The trustees, who had spent countless hours working on this issue, survived the recall and are now moving forward with the project in its original form.

Helen Sica is one resident that sees the sewer as a solution to many of Northport’s economic woes.  She is an artist and has spent almost three decades living near the village, at the end of the Leelanau Peninsula. She says she is saddened by the divisiveness that she sees in the community.

Ms. Sica: “I love the town of Northport, and what I feel is missing somehow in all of this is being addressed is that people aren’t looking at the idea of community and how much we need a sewer to keep this community together. I just have to trust that our village officials did the right thing.”

Generally, those who object to the sewer fall into two categories. Some dislike the process the village used to pick and approve the new system, while others dislike the proposed system’s sheer size—it would be large enough to not only serve Northport, but also some of the surrounding township.

Steve Craker, a Northport auto mechanic who owns two parcels in the sewer assessment district, dislikes the village’s decision-making process.

Mr. Craker: “I’m probably more opposed to the way it was done as far as the surveys that they took. I think they already had a conclusion that they were gonna do and they were going to make it happen without doing a little research.”

Dr. Bill Monaghan, a seasonal resident who traveled to Northport from Indiana for the meeting, dislikes its size. Dr. Monaghen has a background in geology and water quality studies; to him, the proposal, which will cost each household an estimated 13,000 to 18,000 dollars, simply does not adds up.

Dr. Monaghan: “First of all, it’s way too big. I think the system is way over priced.”

Dr. Chris Grobbel of Grobbel Environmental and Planning, agrees. Dr. Grobbel, who was hired to do environmental research on the sewer system for a citizens group, says that the there are other, smaller and better alternatives that the village could use. He notes that other northern Michigan areas—like the New Neighborhood, in Empire, and Peshawbestown, just south of Northport—have put in systems that match the scale of their communities far more closely.

Dr. Grobbel says that the research the village commissioned to document the need for the sewer was flawed and that, therefore, the community should rethink the current proposal.  He adds that there is no need to rush on something as important and as expensive as designing and building a taxpayer-funded sewer system.

Dr. Grobbel: “Other alternatives appear far more attractive to protect the public health, the water quality, and to make it far more attractive.  So, I think what we have here is a very grossly overstated need, some questionable research that got us to this point, and it would behoove us in terms of good community practice and sound economic, sound environmental protection, to back up , ever so briefly and complete a good needs assessment and find a good alternative.”

The debate going on in Northport raises a large question, one that other villages in the region will soon be asking. What kind of professional assistance is available to village governments when they approach an issue as complicated, expensive, and potentially controversial as a new sewer system?  Elected officials typically have little, if any, background knowledge in geology or wastewater treatment, and must rely on the advice of private engineering firms.

That’s exactly the case in Northport: The firm that assessed the village’s need for the sewer is the same one that then designed it and is now planning to build it. Public policy experts point out that such arrangements create the potential for conflict of interest, especially when public tax dollars are involved.

As Dr. Grobbel notes, local communities that need new sewer systems could avoid community conflicts by investing heavily in an independent needs assessment using either a private firm or a government agency that has plenty of expertise, but no financial stake in the outcome. That would reassure residents that the plan is a good one, and greatly reduce the kind of conflict going on in Northport today. A community can then conduct a vigorous competitive bidding process, knowing it’s done enough research to make a proper…and probably far less expensive…decision.

As Northport navigates the murky waters of publicly financed sewer systems, other communities who will soon need systems of their own are watching. Hopefully, they will be able to find the kind of assistance and expertise that could save them from the kind of controversy this tiny northern Michigan village is enduring. 

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org.

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