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Whitehall, Michigan, Brownfield Redevelopment Project Is a Negotiation Process

By Jennifer Eberbach

Location: Whitehall, Mid-Michigan
Population: 2,884

Whitehall, Michigan’s leather tannery was in operation for almost a century and a half before closing in 2000. The expansive 33-acre property located on the shore of White Lake caught the eye of Grand Rapids-based company Eastbrook Homes, which is set to build more than 200 condominiums on the site. However, the site’s soil and accompanying wetlands sit contaminated by what Whitehall City Manager Scott Huebler calls, “the big three, using auto-industry jargon—methane, mercury, and ammonia,” he reports. The presence of these contaminants, as well as additional pollutants that exist “at varying levels,” present concerns over public health and the environment.

Although the tannery was demolished in 2007, reaching a final agreement about how to clean up and manage the contamination has not happened in the decade that the property has been slotted for redevelopment. Between property owner Genesco, which is responsible for the cleanup, the city, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the developer, consultants, the White Lake Pubic Advisory Council and the White Lake Association, “there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen,” who “don’t always agree,”
Huebler says. “It’s not that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, but a lot of cooks make it more complicated,” he explains.

The tannery buildings were closed in 2000 and demolished in 2007. In the 10 years the property has been slotted for redevelopment, no agreement has been reached on how to clean up and manage the contamination.

Despite the contamination, “this was the largest track of waterfront land that Eastbrook Homes could find available for redevelopment along the whole west Michigan coastline,” Huebler explains. It is predicted that the units will appeal largely to people looking for second homes and vacation homes. Potential buyers have already started inquiring about when they will be available, he reports.

Before redevelopment can happen many different decisions needed to be finalized about how to clean up the contamination. For example, “methane gas migrates, and in an enclosed structure it could accumulate into being explosive. We are looking at the likelihood of putting vapor barriers under all of the buildings,” Huebler explains. Other consideration includes whether to remove mercury contamination from a nearby park, and what to do with six contaminated lagoons located west of the former tannery building.

The Muskegon Chronicle reported in January 2010, that “DEQ officials previously expected to have the proposal in hand in the fall,” however, indecision over how to handle the six contaminated lagoons has stalled Genesco’s final plan. One option is to manage the contamination with a groundwater capture system and a sunken barrier, according to the report. However, Huebler reports “a public sentiment towards complete removal of the lagoons.” Removal was also recommended by the DEQ, however, he reports that they have not taken any official stance on whether to manage or to dig up the site.

Brownfield cleanup is “a negotiation process” that “requires a lot of patience,” Huebler says. Some site assessment is cut and dried. “If you exceed ten parts per billion” of a given contaminant, “that’s scientific. You either exceed it or you don’t. The questions for Whitehall is, if there is an ‘exceedance,’ how do you manage it?”

“Everyone can argue either side and anything in between, from complete removal [of the lagoons] to leaving them in place,” Huebler says. However, decisions only yield more questions. “If you decide to leave them in place, what are the options? If you dig them all out, it’s not just about digging them out—you have to take them to a proper landfill. What type of restoration goes back into place, and who pays for it?” he elaborates.

“The city’s position is to find the most economical, environmentally safe development or cleanup option out there. We are listening to the science. If that means the removal of the lagoons, we’ll back that. If it means leaving them in place and finding ways to manage the contamination, we can back that as well,” Huebler says.

The city received the following funds from DEQ for the project: an $850,000 Clean Michigan Initiative (CMI) brownfield grant; a $748,000 CMI brownfield loan; and a $400,000 waterfront grant. City officials are relying on eventual condo sales to help pay off the approximately $3.5 million they may need to issue in bonds for site preparation and improvements to adjacent streets, and water and sewer pipes. Huebler is “confident that the city isn’t exposed to any kind of financial risk,” and calls the project “about a 99.8-percent guarantee for the city.”

“We don’t want to borrow $3.5 million for street, water and sewer pipes, and then have none of the condos sell. On the side, we are working out an agreement with Eastbrook Homes where they would have a letter of credit in the city’s name in the amount of the outstanding balance. If they don’t sell a single condo, we’ve got the money in a bank that we can go to,” he explains.

Looking forward to having a final plan for cleanup that will be available for public review in the near future, Huebler hopes “everyone involved will say this will work. That’s a good solution. We can get behind it. Again, with all of these parties, nobody is going to totally get their way. It’s going to have to be a negotiation. We might have to give a little here to get something there.”

Jennifer Eberbach is a freelance journalist and professional copywriter. You may contact her at 734-929-2964 or jen@jenthewriter.info. Visit her online at www.jenthewriter.info.

 

 

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