Easy fix drain project turns into 14-year, multi-million dollar saga

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By: Katy Barth

What was supposed to be a $300,000 “easy fix” of the Blue Ribbon Drain 14 years ago could become a $15.5 million dollar project for Lansing Township.

Construction is on hold as a court battle looms. The township has sued the county drain commissioner, asking that assessments be redistributed between those within the Groesbeck drainage district, which includes Lansing Township, Lansing and Ingham County.

“The scope of this drain got totally out of control,” said Kathy Rodgers, supervisor of Lansing Township.

The “Easy Fix”

In 1995, the plan was to extend a naturally existing water course near Lake Lansing Road and Chamberlain Drive called the Blue Ribbon Drain by clearing, widening and deepening it. Doing this would allow the water to flow faster through the drainage district and prevent flooding across Lake Lansing Road between Chamberlain Drive and Wood Street.

“It was a simple fix,” said Rodgers.

View the Groesbeck Park Drain and other aspects of the project here.

Contamination in the Blue Ribbon Drain

However, Lansing’s Board of Water and Light’s North Lansing landfill contaminated the Blue Ribbon Drain, said Cheryl Louden, environmental regulator compliance engineer for Lansing’s Board of Water and Light. The landfill was used to hold coal dust from power plants, also known as fly-ash from 1974 until 1997.

“The fly-ash concentration was slowly drifting underground toward an aquifer,” said Mark Nixon, public relations manager for Lansing Board of Water and Light from 2007 until 2012.

Construction plans created in 2005 for was is now called the Groesbeck Park Drain, which cost $4.6 million in engineering fees, were no longer usable due to the contamination.

“The drain commission wants to charge the township at-large and the properties in Lansing Township to cover all these defunct plans that nobody could use,” said Rodgers.

The project came to a halt while the Board of Water and Light corrected the problem, said Rodgers.

Slurry wall installation in the North Lansing landfill. Construction to the Groesbeck Park Drain was postponed while the slurry wall was installed. Photo: Geo-Solutions

Slurry wall installation in the North Lansing landfill. Construction to the Groesbeck Park Drain was postponed while the slurry wall was installed. Photo: Geo-Solutions

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality required Lansing’s Board of Water and Light to stop contamination of all the land around the pond and then to cap it. To stop contamination of the surrounding land Lansing’s Board of Water and Light built a slurry wall, which created an underground barrier and prevented the contaminated water from spreading. They filled the landfill with sand to prevent people from coming in contact with the hazardous materials, said Louden. Construction of the slurry wall began in 2008 and finished in 2010.

But now the drainage district began to flood because the water that naturally went into this landfill had nowhere else to go, said Rodgers.

To fix this new problem, the Ingham County Drain Commission put in an 18-inch pipe for the water to flow.  But that took away the capacity of the natural water course to hold 19 million gallons of water, Rodgers said. The water backed up and flooded the 365-acre district.

“When the Board of Water and Light and the drain commission changed some of the ways that that water was handled, they caused the flooding in the drainage district,” said Rodgers.

Expenses created by Lansing’s Board of Water and Light will be paid by all of the landowners within the district that spans both the township and the city. There are 136 landowners in the township and 49 in the city.

Those costs don’t sit well with township officials.

“The only thing that should have been paid by property owners is the cleaning or enclosing of the Blue Ribbon Drain,” said Steven Hayward, director of planning and development for Lansing Township. “All other costs should be the responsibility of the Board of Water and Light.”

The cost of this project was $4.6 million.

Out of control

Meanwhile, Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann expanded the function of the drain, Rodgers said.

Phase 1, also called the Groesbeck Park Drain, refers to the initial layout and construction of the drain and was always a part of the project plan. It was renamed Phase 1 when Lindemann divided the project into two parts.

Steven Hayward points to a retention pond layout plan. Photo: Katy Barth

Steven Hayward points to a retention pond layout plan. Photo: Katy Barth

Phase 2, also called the Groesbeck Park Extension Drain, will consist of digging retention ponds to collect water in areas known to flood. Pipes will be laid to direct the water to an interceptor near Lake Lansing Road and Massachusetts Avenue. From there, the water will travel through another pipe and into the Grand River. The exact distance was never stated.

Lindemann did not return repeated calls for comment. Paul Pratt, the deputy drain commissioner said he was unable to speak publicly on the Groesbeck Park Drain.

Increases in taxes

But now the township is suing over what it sees as an unfair tax burden on its residents.

“If it’s going to be as severe as I think it may be it’s going to be unjust,” said Joe Droste, township resident living within the Groesbeck drainage district and member of the Downtown Development Authority for Lansing Township. “We all have to pay some taxes for just living, I can understand that, but when it gets way out of proportion that’s not right either.”

Here is how Hayward and Rodgers say the project has been financed:

Lansing Township’s residents’ taxes have increased by 28 percent since 1999 to pay for portions of the cost of the Groesbeck Park Drain. City of Lansing residents’ taxes have also increased to cover a portion of the drain’s expenses.

In 1995, the estimated cost of the Groesbeck Park Drain was $300,000. The 136 landowners within the drainage district we assessed by the county drain commission to cover this cost.

The exact date is unknown, but sometime between 1990 and 1999, Lindemann split the drain project into two phases.

In 1999, 14.6 percent of the cost of Phase 1 was applied to all residents in Lansing Township, instead of only people living in the drainage district. Phase 1 eventually cost $3 million dollars. Landowners in the drainage district paid $438,000 in taxes towards Phase 1 rather than the $43,800 they were supposed to pay in 1995. Lansing Township and Lansing paid the rest of those costs from their annual budgets.

On Oct. 27, 1999, Project Engineer Greg Minshall estimated the cost for Phase 2 at $2.6 million. However, in 2013 the Ingham County Drain Commissioner office re-estimated the cost at about $12.6 million. Lindemann determined that all Lansing Township residents, even those outside of the drainage district, will cover 49.5 percent of the cost for Phase 2, which is around $6.2 million.

“The at-large millage charged to Lansing Township will be paid by all property owners,” said Hayward. “Therefore, a property on the west side of Lansing would have their annual taxes increased nearly 25 percent to pay for a drain that doesn’t benefit them.”

“Sound like a fair deal?” Rodgers asks.

Here’s the latest breakdown of how the $15.5 million drain will be paid:

  • Lansing Township residents 49.5 percent
  • Lansing Township’s annual budget 12.5 percent
  • Ingham County 3.15 percent
  • City of Lansing about 7.02 percent

“The Township never anticipated that something this bloated would ever be proposed and feels that their fiduciary interests and trust were abused by others,” said Hayward.

Action

But it’s not a done deal.

The township and the drain commission will meet in court to settle the drain dispute. The court date has not been set yet.

“They want Lansing Township to pick up most of the costs of this drain and that’s what we’re filing a lawsuit about,” said Rodgers.

The interceptor pipe – phase 2 – will also be used by Lansing, she said.

The City of Lansing and Board of Water and Light have a combined budget of $300 million. Lansing Charter Township has an annual budget of $4 million. Lansing Township at-large is expected to pay 62 percent of the cost of the Groesbeck Park Drain, which is coming from residents and the annual budget.

Lansing Township officials don’t think it’s fair for the new costs that have been added to the project to be passed on to them.

“It’s upsetting that other public officials that are supposed to have the entire county, that they have a responsibility for, would try to destroy on of the townships in the county,” said Rodgers. “It makes it harder and harder and harder to provide the services that we need to provide to our citizens.”

Meanwhile, resident like Droste are puzzled: “It’s a simple matter of moving water from one place to another. It should take almost $16 million.”

Timeline of drain project changes here.

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