Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 27, 2013

Residents struggle with erosion, runoff

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Briant Thomas wasn’t happy when his son ruined his new school shoes playing in a muddy construction lot near their home.

Most of Thomas’ ire is directed at local officials, whose inability or unwillingness to address erosion and water runoff problems led to the muddy mess next door.

“When inspectors have went by, there’s been no responsibility taken by either the township, or the county,” Thomas said during a Grand Traverse County Commission meeting this month.

Thomas, of Garfield Township, said soil erosion and storm water runoff ordinance violations plague construction-pocked Lone Tree Subdivision where he lives. He and other county residents said there’s no simple way to obtain meaningful help from local government officials when it comes to such problems.

“You have two different agencies in the county, and neither of them wants to get involved,” Peninsula Township resident Alan Gray said about similar problems near his home.

Gray referred to the county’s soil erosion and sedimentation control department -- part of the county’s construction code office -- and Peninsula Township government, which, along with other townships, is in charge of enforcing storm water ordinances.

The county’s elected drain commissioner oversaw all those duties until 2012, when county board members voted to shift soil erosion enforcement duties to the construction code office.

Commissioner Larry Inman opposed the change then, and continues to do so.

“I think it leads to a great deal of confusion on the public’s part, and quite frankly, on the part of the county commission,” Inman said.

Commissioners later allowed storm water enforcement agreements with the townships to expire. Now township officials are responsible for what used to be a drain commissioner’s responsibility.

County Drain Commissioner Kevin McElyea’s salary dropped from about $65,000 with benefits to $7,000 with no benefits after the county board stripped his responsiblities.

McElyea said board members failed to consider how soil erosion, storm water management and drain code administration are interconnected. The diffusion of those responsibilities frustrates citizens who no longer have a one-stop shop for erosion and water runoff grievances.

Gray’s frustration stems from water that runs off a construction site near his home, across a private drive and into a retention basin on his property. The runoff deposited soils from the construction site into the basin, and now it won’t drain properly, he said.

Bruce Remai, the county’s director of building code enforcement, said the contractor on the project near Gray’s home has followed county codes and corrected issues when they’ve cropped up. The bigger problem is unusually heavy rains this summer and fall.

“If you’re trying to stabilize a site and get grass to grow and you’ve had rains like we’ve had, you’re going to have a problem,” Remai said.

Gafrield Township Supervisor Chuck Korn said the same thing about work in the Lone Tree Subdivision.

But McElyea said he’s witnessed violations of state soil erosion laws that he’s unable to fix at both locations -- and many others.

“In the good old days I used to be able to knock on the nuisance neighbor’s door and get a resolution, but I don’t have the authority anymore,” he said.

Gray and Thomas said they’ve been told to be patient. With time, soil will settle, grass will grow back and the problem will fix itself, officials told them.

Thomas said that’s an unacceptable response from contractors and local officials.

“They have a responsibility to neighbors to follow the bylaws and follow code and do what’s right,” he said.

Inman said county and township officials will meet soon to discuss problems akin to those raised by Thomas and Gray.

“Either we’ve got to put (the drain commissioner) position back together again, or we’ve got to figure out a way the public can go to the right people and get these things done right,” he said.