People living in New Baltimore said more construction in a wetlands area could bring more disastrous flooding.
Residents are working to stop development, but have been unsuccessful so far. The area is on the north end of Lake Saint Clair and serves as a natural drainage point where rivers flow into the lake.
“Water was actually going down through their homes, through their crawlspaces, down the road. We had fish actually swimming down the road. It was unbelievable,” New Baltimore city administrator Marcia Shinska said.
Wetlands are unique ecosystems that have many benefits for the environment and nearby communities -- including their ability to reduce the frequency and intensity of inland flooding. Wetlands retain excess water and release it slowly over time, acting as a buffer against flooding, especially during storms, experts say.
After a significant portion of wild wetlands were destroyed in Michigan and the U.S., statewide and nationwide protections were put in place. Under such protections, developers in Michigan must get special approval if the land they seek is in a wetland area.
However, Local 4 Investigators sifted through years of documents related to building in the area, and discovered that it is relatively easy to get state approval to put a new development in a wetlands area.
'It costs us about $40,000 in damages'
New Baltimore is a quiet community that sits on the waterfront along Lake Saint Clair’s Anchor Bay. Those who live there said they love the small-town vibe, but fear that the hometown feeling is slowly getting destroyed.
After moving into her Willow Creek subdivision home in 2017, Heather Owczarek noticed something troubling: her basement was caving in.
“It cost us about $40,000 in damages, which the average person doesn’t really have $40,000 just lying around,” Owczarek said. “[T]he amount of moisture and clay that is on this property made the house, over time, fall into itself.”
Owczarek lives in an area that has been repeatedly targeted by developers.
Back in 1996, a developer illegally clear-cut part of the wetlands, which led to the flooding of neighboring areas. In 2007, Owczarek’s neighborhood was built right on the edge of the wetlands. A developer plans to build 43 homes on the same wetlands area that was destroyed in 1996.
In the last 200 years, tens of millions of wetland acreage have been destroyed in Michigan, primarily due to development and agriculture. As wetlands in Michigan continue to dwindle, the loss of the ecosystems could damage nearby environments, and affect endangered species that rely on such ecosystems.
Read: Metro Detroit wetlands: What they are, how they’re shrinking
Angela Fresh and Jennifer Mohr both live just south of the wetlands area in New Baltimore. They’ve pleaded to city council and started a petition to stop the construction in the wetlands. They lost their battle.
The city of New Baltimore went ahead and approved new construction of 43 condos on the wetlands area.
“How does this happen? I mean, if you, as a city, don’t want this to occur, how are these permits going through?” Karen Drew asked.
“Well, EGLE, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, has all the rights to issue these permits,” Shinska said.
Shinska said the city’s hands are tied, because EGLE ultimately decides the fate of Michigan’s wetlands and issues permits to build on them.
“What does EGLE say to those folks in the city who say, ‘You know what? EGLE just comes in and gives this permit?’” Karen Drew asked.
“We take all those concerns into consideration,” said Justin Smith, environmental quality specialist with EGLE. “You look at the economic benefit of the project, you look at the amount of wetlands in the vicinity, you look at the quality of the wetlands lost. There are a number of factors we look at.”
Christy McGillivray, with the Sierra Club, said destroying wetlands affects everyone in Michigan.
“Regardless of whether or not your basement’s flooding, you’re connected in some way to the Great Lakes, and Michiganders know that,” McGillivray said. “It’s not good for business to get flooded. It’s not good for businesses to have to deal with toxic algae blooms in our waterways. So, I think it’s a question of what kind of development and who is benefitting.”
Read: Developer hit with violation notice for cutting down trees in Huron Township without final permit
Developer says it will proceed with plans
Willow Creek Estates, LLC managing member Piero Nardone released the following statement:
“Thank you for your inquiry regarding real estate development in New Baltimore. Currently our company Willow Creek Estates, L.L.C. is proceeding with the plans to develop a new site condominium subdivision of 43 lots for single family residences. While the site includes 53 acres, only about 12 acres near County Line Road will be developed. The 41 acres as the rear of the property will not be developed in order to preserve wetlands. This aspect is governed by the State of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Willow Creek Estates has obtained from EGLE all of the environmental permitting needed to proceed.
“Consistent with EGLE’s mission the permitting was issued to inform the public about the proposed development and facilitate compliance with all environmental protection standards and particularly the wetland protection requirements.
“With assistance and guidance from EGLE, the surveyors, engineers, and wetland specialists working for Willow Creek Estates have demarcated the wetland area to be preserved. This dividing line is an explicit part of the permits issued by EGLE and theSite Plan that has been recommended by the City of New Baltimore Planning Commission for approval by City Council.
“Currently Willow Creek Estates is in the process of finalizing the planning requirements to satisfy both the County of Macomb Drain Office and the City of New Baltimore Engineering Review Standards. In all of this Willow Creek Estates is wholly committed to the creation of a subdivision that will enhance the community in all respects.”