After months of working with Streamside Ecological Service on a remediation plan for the 14-mile-long Little Thornapple River Drain, negotiating reached an impasse, according to Luis Saldivia, supervisor of the Water Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in Grand Rapids.
Saldivia said the DEQ has been in ongoing consultations with the Michigan Attorney General’s office since last fall to see what they need to do to get the restoration done. The next step could include civil action. He discounted any criminal action as, “a last resort,” and a “drastic step.”
“We want to get an agreement and get to work,” he said. “Having three new commissioners on the board presents a challenge and also an opportunity to see new energies devoted to see if we can solve the issues.”
The intercounty drain board is made up of the drain commissioners from Barry County, Jim Dull; Ionia County, Robert Rose; and Kent County, Ken Yonker. Brady Harrington, from the Michigan Agriculture Department and Rural Development Board, chairs the intercounty drain board meetings. The board has not met since August, 2016.
Streamside Ecological Services co-founder Aaron Snell was hired by the intercounty drain board to develop a remediation plan that was agreeable to the DEQ. Snell submitted two plans to the DEQ, the first was returned for revision, the second is the one now stalled. Streamside said the DEQ was asking for things they couldn’t do, and negotiations broke down last fall, Saldivia said on Jan. 26. He said the restoration will be a multi-year project
Attorney Stacy Hissong with the Fahey, Schultz, Burzych and Rhodes law firm, represents the drain board. She said according to the drain code, they need a petition from a government entity or a court order to move forward on the drain. “Without a petition, we have no plan to move forward,” she said. Streamside’s work is not in question and the drain board is pleased with its work, she said. Streamside has to find a remediation plan that would meet the drain code in the most cost effective way possible, she added. Streamside is “very close” to having such a plan.//
August, 2014: To correct flooding problems along the 14-mile-length of the Little Thornapple Drain,(part of the Thornapple River) the intercounty board voted unanimously to do the work. With a proposal for bids with specifications adopted by all on the board, notices were sent to property owners along the river to make them aware of the coming work, according to drain commission records.
September, 2014: Geiger Excavating won the contract for $139,840 to be spread over the 2014-2015 budget years.
November, 2014: The board paid Geiger $24,000 and voted to borrow $135,000 to pay him the full amount.
Meanwhile, property owners along the drain and trout stream were complaining in public meetings of trees being cut and left lay, bank erosion, loss of ground cover along the river’s banks, lowered property values and general devastation of the river and their property.
With ongoing complaints from the public and the Coldwater River Watershed Council, the board voted to suspend Geiger’s work and find a plan to fix the damage. Aaron Snell, co-owner of Streamside, was hired by the drain board to provide a reconstruction plan for review by the DEQ. Other than seeding and initial work to stabilize the river banks, no further remediation has been done since then.
May, 2015: the Barry County Commission hired attorney Doug Kelly, with the Clark Hill law firm, to defend the county and its then Drain Commissioner Russ Yarger.
An original assessment and stabilization report was discussed by Streamside and the DEQ.
October, 2015: the first report from Streamside went to the DEQ, with follow-up meetings later in October and in November. It was reviewed by the DEQ and sent back with changes requested.
On the legal advice of Hissong, who represents the drain board, the second remediation plan developed by Snell, was sent back to him by the intercounty board for more work before it was submitted to the DEQ for approval and work could continue on the drain.
“We’re in a standby mode,” Saldivia said then. “We would like to see a plan. We’re encouraged, we do like to work with the people on the board…there is a lot of common agreement in several areas; with an updated plan, the board will look at it, we will review it, and hopefully get it done in 2016.”
March, 2016: The second, revised report was submitted to the DEQ by Streamside. Saldivia said then that DEQ staff was doing field work on the plan to determine it will approve the plans, or suggest improvements to Streamside.
June and July, 2016: Saldivia said the DEQ field work was completed and they were “discerning what areas they have agreement with the submitted remediation plan from Streamside.”
Billings for 2015-2016 legal work from Clark Hill, P.C. totaled $84,247.05, Barry County Administrator’s office figures show.
Billings from Fahey, Schultz, Burzych and Rhodes total $91,828, including $6,210.98 waiting for board approval of invoices, according to Hissong.
Billings from Streamside has been $85,315.23, with the first invoice in May, 2015, Snell said.
Special assessments on parcel owners to pay for improvements along the drain from Jordan Lake to Freeport are assessed on winter tax bills only. Special assessments are for one year, and must be re-approved every year.
In 2015, 2,190 parcels in the special assessment district were assessed, with Barry County parcel owners assessed $154,000, Ionia County owners $66,000 and Kent County owners, $0, according to drain department records.
In 2016, 2,191 parcels were assessed, with Barry County owners for $77,000, Ionia County assessed $33,000 and Kent County, $0, for a total of $330,000 over the two years, drain commission records show.
On Jan 26, Saldivia offered to supply a contact number of the Attorney General’s lawyer who is conferring with the DEQ. As of Feb. 7, no contact information has been forthcoming.