Lyndon Township is between a rock and a hard place.
McCoig Materials, which operates seven concrete plants in the Detroit area, wants to open its first sand and gravel mine on 158 acres across from Green Lake. The site is smack dab in the middle of the Pinckney and Waterloo recreation areas and has been occupied for the last 10,000 years by Stofer Hill, at 1,050 feet one of the highest points in the area.
When McCoig is finished in twenty to thirty years, Stofer Hill will be gone, all of its sand and gravel hauled away by sixty to eighty tandem trucks driving daily down M-52 through Chelsea to I-94. In its place will be a pit twenty-five to fifty feet lower than the surrounding landscape.
“It’s a heavy industrial operation which will remove a beautiful piece of property,” says John Enos of Carlisle/Wortman Associates, which provides planning services to Lyndon Township. “They do have a plan to renew it into a fifty-plus acre lake surrounded by wooded property when they’re done. It’ll be nice, but it won’t be what it is now.”
The 200 folks at the February township planning commission meeting who heard and commented on McCoig’s special land use zoning request clearly want the property to stay as it is.
“It’s like living in heaven out here,” says Mary Jane Eder, who lives on Island Lake a third of a mile from the proposed mine. “We’ll probably see it [the mine], and we’ll definitely hear it, because sound travels so well over water.”
Eder has deeper concerns. “They plan to drill fifty feet below the water level, and that will take down the water levels of Island, Green, and South lakes. Plus, we are downstream from Stofer Hill. It’s what provides us with well water, and those levels will go down, too. This will have a huge impact on property values.”
Though she’s ardently against the mine, Eder recognizes the township’s central dilemma. “No matter which way they go, somebody’s going to sue them. If they deny it, McCoig will sue. If they approve it, the neighbors will sue.”
John Enos says he’s concerned with the mine’s “potential for nuisance, for noise, smoke, diesel oil spills, and things like that.” Beyond that, the planner is worried the mine will impact the area’s character. “Our master plan calls out the importance of the rural and recreational character of the community, and this is going to hurt it.”
Most importantly, Enos isn’t convinced by McCoig’s hydrogeological plans. “They did a study, but there was not enough information in it for us to feel comfortable. What we need are better hydrogeological studies to give us an understanding of the topography out there.”
“The fear is they could drain the lakes,” says Tim Eder, Mary Jane’s husband. “The company’s done a cursory impact study, but there is a real risk we don’t think they’re addressing. As for well water, we don’t know for sure whether it’s safe or not, because the study is totally inadequate.”
Lynn Walter, a retired University of Michigan geology professor who lives in Chelsea, has the same fears. “I’ve analyzed the groundwater and the surface water chemistry in that area. There’re a lot of layers of different permeability because of glaciation, and the impact [of mining] would be that the lakes would go down.
“Stofer Hill is a tremendous topographic high [point],” explains Walter. “So many rivers and streams flow from it. The flow pattern into the lakes doesn’t make sense without it.”
The lakes aren’t all that’s fed by Stofer Hill. “I’ve just looked at wells a mile and half out [from the proposed site],” Walter continues. “These are artesian wells because the water table is above the surface of the ground, and the water pressure keeps the wells flowing.”
Asked if removing the hill would stop the flow, Walter hedges. “It’s hard to say what the impact will be. I’d like to see a more thorough study of groundwater wells in that neighborhood. That area is not amenable to a quick evaluation, and [McCoig’s study] looked at just five wells.”
Whatever the effect on wells, Walter is sure about the aesthetic impact: “If I made a color-coded map showing the topography, people would go ‘Oh, my God! They’re going to take that and turn it into a pit!'”
The loss of a high point and the future of three lakes aren’t the only worries. “My primary concern is the amount of traffic generated on M-52 traveling through Lyndon and Chelsea,” Enos says. McCoig “is doing a traffic study, but it will be about the impact on interchanges and not brass tacks of the impact of gravel trucks running through Chelsea.”
“I’m opposed [to the mine] as much for what would happen to the thriving downtown area as I am for what would happen to the water levels,” says Walter. “It’s really a special place, a safe place for kids and old people, and eighty gravel trains going through downtown a day–160 a day counting return trips–is really going to hurt.”
That also worries Mark Heydlauff, director of Chelsea’s Downtown Development Authority and owner of Heydlauff’s Appliances on Main Street. “It’ll have a huge effect on us. We have a very nice downtown shopping district with restaurants and the Purple Rose Theatre. But it’s got a very narrow Main Street, and gravel trucks coming through will change it a lot.”
Though the DDA has raised those concerns at city council, Heydlauff says, “I don’t know if Chelsea can stop it. It’s a state-owned road.”
Bob Pierce, head of Chelsea’s Chamber of Commerce, shares those fears. “We strongly feel there will be a catastrophic impact on downtown Chelsea and the entire area. Every 3.75 minutes a tandem gravel truck will be going through our downtown, and we believe this will have a serious impact on property values, economic health, and pedestrian safety.
“It’s going to lead to people going elsewhere for dining or shopping or events,” Pierce warns. “One of our big economic drivers is our summer-long music series which features bands all along the proposed truck route, and the sheer number of people on Main Street would make us fear for safety of the guests with that many trucks going through town.”
But Pierce thinks there may be something Chelsea can do. “We’re looking at the state statute, the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act. In paragraph 5c it says that if there’s a serious impact on property values in the vicinity and along the proposed hauling route, the request can be denied.”
Chelsea city councilmember Melissa Johnson spoke at the February public hearing. She “expressed a number of concerns,” emails city manager John Hanifan. He adds that the city has sent letters to MDOT, state representative Gretchen Driskell, state senator Rebekah Warren, and county commissioner Kent Martinez-Kratz, strongly opposing the proposed hauling route.
In a February statement, McCoig said it is “unrealistic to address all of the concerns we have received and those heard at the February 17th public hearing” in a public response. Instead, the company stressed the need for sand and gravel–“Each American uses approximately 10 tons of aggregate material every year”–and Lyndon’s ongoing review process: “The Township has a comprehensive mining ordinance in place to protect the health and welfare of its residents, local water resources, and the environment in general. We are committed to working with the Township and the review consultants to meet and/or exceed the requirements of that ordinance.”
The February planning commission meeting was so well attended that some people didn’t get a chance to speak, so the township has another scheduled for March 13 at the Washington Street Education Center in Chelsea. But eventually the commission will have to make its recommendation to approve or deny, and the township board will then have to accept or reject their recommendation–and then Lyndon will probably be sued.
Though the state’s departments of natural resources and environmental quality will also hold a public hearing, state law isn’t much help. “Public Act 389 of 2012 approved by [governor Rick] Snyder says there have to be very serious consequences for us to turn down a business activity,” says Mary Jane Eder. “We think the effects on property values and traffic safety are serious consequences, but the state might not agree.”
Enos suspects Eder is right. “If it winds up in court, the state typically looks favorably on extraction operations because that’s where God put [the minerals], and they have to get them out. But either way we’re going to be sued, and it’s going to take some time to work its way through the courts.”
That’s OK with Eder, who says that 200 or so people already have joined the Friends of Chelsea and Lyndon Township to fight the project: “Our position is to delay as long as possible and apply as much political pressure as we can.”
Though the law makes it an uphill fight, Eder believes that sooner or later, they will stop the mine. “We love this area, and I can’t imagine that we can’t succeed.”