Marshland mess

Made In Detroit Inc. officials have alluded to support they’ve received in Gibraltar and Trenton, communities along the lower Detroit River where they plan to build 340 luxury homes and a golf course.

However, at a recent public hearing in Gibraltar, Made In Detroit officials heard the heated words of residents still fighting the developer’s plan to build near Humbug Marsh, the last substantial stretch of U.S. coastal wetlands along the river.

"Don’t plan on having any houses there," Gibraltar resident Kathleen Law told the city’s planning commission. "We need the marsh! Animals need the marsh! My God!"

Between 60 and 100 people attended the hearing at Gibraltar’s community center June 29. Mostly local residents took turns at the microphone, berating city officials for what some say is a forgone conclusion – rezoning the marsh property from single-family residential to mixed use, which would allow Made In Detroit’s development.

"You’re selling us down the river!" a voice from the crowd chimed in at one point during the hearing, seeming to crystallize a common sentiment.

The hearing marks Gibraltar’s reconsideration of a zoning change city officials approved in 1997. They are redoing the process because they failed to lawfully notify adjacent property owners about the last public hearing. However, questions have been raised concerning the more recent hearing’s validity.

Grosse Ile resident Blair McGowan says in the public notice of the hearing the city failed to indicate where to send written comments. At the hearing, the city attorney said the notice had been republished with the complete information and in time to make the hearing legal.

It is now unclear who will have the final say on the development. Michigan Department of Environmental Quality gave the developer its blessing last month, but the project still awaits approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The project also depends on the zoning changes. If approved by the planning commission, the changes would go before the city council.

The hearing was one episode in a long-running controversy over the proposed development at Humbug Marsh. Residents and environmental groups say the marsh ecosystem should be preserved for wildlife and the public. At that hearing, some residents accused city officials of having already made up their minds to rezone in favor of the development.

Gibraltar Mayor Scott Denison, who did not attend the hearing, says "The city is going to go through a proper review of the input at the public hearing and come to the proper conclusion." However, he says, only DEQ and the Army Corps of Engineers have the authority to deny a development based on environmental laws. Denison says the city must stay within its jurisdiction and base its decision on its master plan, which would allow the rezoning.

However, Gibraltar resident Mary Ann Piatt argued before planning commissioners that the city’s zoning guidelines instruct officials to weigh factors including environmental preservation and community needs. Made in Detroit maintains that its proposal is environmentally sound and will benefit local economies.

In a June 9 letter to Gibraltar officials, Made In Detroit attorney Saulius Mikalonis says the developer has already spent "literally hundreds of thousands of dollars" planning its development around the city’s 1997 zoning decision. In the letter, he continues, "We trust that the administrative error can be rectified; however, in the event that it is not, Made in Detroit reserves all its rights against the City of Gibraltar for any and all damages."

At the hearing, Piatt expressed concern that city was being held "financially hostage" by Made In Detroit.

Mikalonis told Metro Times the letter was not meant as a threat to sue the city.

Asked why no one at the hearing spoke in favor of the development, spokesperson Tina Bassett said the developer’s supporters didn’t think it was necessary.

"I don’t believe the planning commission has any intention of rescinding the zoning," Basset says. "This is going to benefit their community. … We fully expect for this to be approved by the Corps and for us to be in the ground this summer."

The planning commission and city council are expected to decide the issue as early as next month.