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Great Lakes Article:

Save the wetlands, help the lake, experts say

08/19/2002
Macomb Daily

Forget the ducks. Wetlands serve more pressing needs in Macomb County than providing a stop-over for the millions of migrating ducks that utilize nature's cover.

But if developers have their way, wetlands will be lost forever, experts say.

"Don't talk about the ducks," warned Eugene Jaworski, a professor at Eastern Michigan University. "You have to communicate to developers what a wetland does."

Wetlands are part of the drainage system of an area. Storm water runoff drains into wetlands, where it is filtered, stored and slowly released into waterways and lakes.

"You've got to protect wetlands," Jaworski said, "if you want to protect Lake St. Clair."

Wetlands provide a number of functions for Macomb County "at no charge."

"You know what the problem is?" Jaworski told the Macomb County Water Quality Board last week. "I see catch basins in wetland areas. Catch basins should not be in wetland areas. It's supposed to be wet."

Jaworski offered a simple solution to fast-disappearing wetlands.

"All you have to do is preserve it," said Jaworski, an environmental wetland consultant since 1975 and presently employed by J&L; Consulting Services of Ypsilanti. "Development is taking place in northern Macomb County. You've got something nice to preserve. Wetlands are a protective greenbelt."

Don and Lorraine Moore of Harrison Township have been fighting to preserve wetlands near their home for a decade.

"American House wanted to put assisted living in the back, but there's 21 acres of wetlands back there," Lorraine Moore said. "We've been fighting this development for eight years. We did a lot of studying and have been in contact with (the Department of Environmental Quality) and Army Corps of Engineers. The project has been turned down twice, but they keep coming back."

Moore's home is 1,000 feet from the wetlands near Lake St. Clair.

"The developers want to make us happy, but we said we have nothing to say about it," Lorraine said. "We can't say, 'You can't build here,' but we were right in guessing we had legal rights the DEQ and Army Corps agreed with us on. There's a whole strip of wetlands and our area is designated as wetlands. We want to preserve the health of the community."

"People see vacant property and they think they can build on it," Don Moore said. "It's not a personal thing. You've got a good 40 acres of wetlands here. We all know we like to use the lake. You have to take the time to educate yourself about wetlands. When you realize what all those parcels of wetlands do, maybe you wouldn't want to develop it."

In response to dwindling acres of wetlands, the Macomb County Water Quality Board is beginning work on a countywide wetlands ordinance.

"We have to tread lightly before we present anything," said Doug Martz, director of the Water Quality Board. "But we all know we need one."

For starters, to combat overzealous developers, wetland experts suggest introducing aerial maps from local communities to create one Macomb County wetland map. The map could then be used as evidence in cases where a developer questions whether a piece of property is in fact a wetland.

"You've got to go out into the field and flag wetland sites," Jaworski said. "In order to map your wetlands you have to go on someone's property. ... When development is proposed, you have your own wetland assessor, and now you can compare their (wetland assessment) to ours."

Dr. Carl Freeman said when a wetland ordinance is established local law enforcement will be needed.

"The DEQ is absolutely (neglect) in their duties," Dr. Freeman said. "They let (developers) chop up wetlands. It is essential you have verification. (And) it needs to be backed up with clout."

Jessica Pitelka, executive director of the Clinton River Watershed Council, told the Water Quality Board that 25 percent of Macomb County was made up of wetlands in the 1800s. But in 1996, only 7 percent of Macomb County consisted of wetlands.

"Seventy-four percent of wetlands are gone," Pitelka said. "There's only 20,181 acres left in Macomb County."

Harrison Township resident Hugh Horton said there is a reason for disappearing wetlands.

"Some township officials looking the other way," Horton said. "Some engineers see a signature seal and will not ask one question. Every illegal thing done is being done by engineers to manipulate the law."

Horton said a disputed floodway on the southwest part of the upscale subdivision along the Clinton River halted construction on Brigantine Estates while proper permits could be obtained.

"A road is built across the floodway before anyone knew it, but developers go as fast as they can, knowing local officials will not tell them to back up," Horton said. "Had they been honest they would have got a permit and done it right. But now there's a road over the floodway."

The 141-unit condominium development is located on a 73-acre site south of Selfridge Air National Guard Base. Lots are currently being sold.

Brigantine subdivision developer David White of Land Development Services of Michigan did not return calls seeking comment.

Wetland watchdog Lon Ullmann of Troy said education is the key to stopping the destruction of wetlands in Macomb County.

"Don't wait until you're like Troy," Ullmann said. "But until the public is educated on wetlands, communities in Macomb County will turn into a Troy."

On hand to offer the Water Quality Board advice was permit writer Lev Woods of West Bloomfield Township, a community with a wetlands ordinance. Woods was instrumental in upholding the ordinance as a member of the local Wetlands Review Board.

What is needed if Macomb County is to establish its own wetlands ordinance? Woods offered the following suggestions:

  • Shared community value.

  • Use a model wetlands ordinance.

  • Create a citizens review board.

  • Hire an experienced consultant.

  • Have no fear of lawsuits.

  • Get ready to spend money.

    West Bloomfield Township was the second community in the state to establish a wetlands ordinance in 1977 (Oakland Township was first in 1976).

    "Wetlands is just not about ducks," Jaworski said. "(But) to propose development in a filled wetland is like suggesting building a roadway across a wetland. A good rule is to first think about no feasible and prudent alternatives."

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