EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.
TRAVERSE CITY — Lawsuits continue to flood into local courts more than a year after the Brown Bridge Dam breach, while state investigators remain mum about what exactly caused the problem.
Two groups of property owners filed suits in 13th Circuit Court and a third lawsuit is on the way against the city of Traverse City, the Boardman River Dams Settlement Agreement Implementation Team and engineering and construction firms involved in the dam’s removal, plaintiffs’ attorney Kristyn Houle said.
The suits all stem from the botched drawdown of the 170-plus acre Brown Bridge Pond during the dam’s removal in October 2012. The pond was supposed to be gradually lowered, but instead a construction device known as a temporary dewatering structure failed, sending much of the pond into the river at once. The flooding swelled the river, damaged 66 properties and threatened bridges.
A cause of the breach is still under investigation by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“We’re getting close,” Byron Lane, MDEQ’s chief of hydrologic studies and dam safety, said of the investigation report. “We’re finishing up the draft this month and hoping to have internal reviews next month.”
The two lawsuits, the first filed in May and the second this month, contend negligent actions by the parties involved in the dam removal caused the breach and the ensuing flooding that badly damaged plaintiffs’ properties and released polluted sediment into the Boardman River, Houle said.
Traverse City and the implementation team are the sole defendants in an additional charge of unconstitutional taking of property. Houle said plantiffs’ properties now sit within a floodplain because of the 2009 decision to remove the dam.
Scott Howard, an attorney representing the implementation team, said that’s not true.
“Obviously, we disagree with them on those claims and we’re going to work hard to provide the science and explanation for why they’re wrong,” he said.
Richard Baron, one of Traverse City’s attorneys in the case, could not be reached for comment.
Houle said she’s going to file a third suit on behalf of a different group of property owners in January.
Attorneys representing Traverse City tried in June to move the first suit, filed by Boardman Plains Road property owners, to federal court.
A federal judge sent the case back to 13th Circuit Court in August. The case is scheduled to go to trial in July, but Houle said that could change if all three suits are combined.
“Chances are they will all be consolidated into one and we’ll get a new scheduling order, but we haven’t gotten to that point yet,” she said.