The Lowell Charter Township Board met on Monday in front of a crowd of residents unhappy with recently announced plans to build a wastewater treatment facility off Grand River Drive. The board meeting lasted roughly two hours and included extensive public comment on the treatment plant as well as a discussion of two other agenda items. All board members were present.
Fire Chief Contract Presented, Park Camera Expense Approved
Before the board took up the issue of the wastewater treatment plant, it first addressed two other pieces of business. These were a contract for a new fire chief and payment for a security camera at the volleyball courts in the South Grand River Riverfront Park.
Carlton Blough, who represents the township on the Lowell Area Fire and Emergency Services Authority Board, noted the group was working on a description and contract for the new fire chief. With the retirement of Ron van Overbeek from the position last month, the board named Shannon Witherell as the interim chief. Witherell was previously the department’s deputy chief.
“We’re going to have a full-time chief now,” Blough said and explained that the position will cost approximately $100,000 in salary and benefits. When asked whether the contract would need to be approved by the jurisdictions belonging to the authority, Blough responded, “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Treasurer Ronda Benedict noted the contract called for a 15% payment toward retirement benefits. She asked if that was industry standard since usually employers split retirement costs with employees.
Blough didn’t know the answer and said he also had questions about some of the contract provisions. He added that the contract was based on Witherell’s employment requests. “We asked Shannon to write up what he wanted, and that’s mostly from him,” Blough explained.
“How much searching have you done?” asked trustee Steve Vander Ziel.
“Really none,” Carlton replied. He said that the general feeling was that Witherell was the city’s choice for the position so there really was no reason to go through an extensive search. “It’s not much use to fight it,” he said.
Supervisor Jerry Hale thought morale in the Fire Department may have been a reason for Witherell’s selection as well.
The Lowell Charter Township Board did not take any action on the contract although the Lowell City Council approved it at their meeting. The board of Vergennes Township, which is the final member of the authority, heard a presentation from Witherell at their Monday meeting but did not take a vote on the contract either.
Then, after hearing citizen concerns from a resident about Sunday work being done at Timpson Transport, the board moved on to its next agenda item and unanimously approved a $511 charge to pay for security cameras installed at the volleyball courts located at the South Grand River Riverfront Park.
Feasibility Study: More Wastewater Capacity Needed
The main point of business for the night was a presentation of a feasibility study conducted by engineering firm Moore+Bruggink, The firm was hired by the township in March to evaluate its water and sewer needs and make recommendations.
During the presentation, representatives from Moore+Bruggink said the township currently has sewer and water agreements with the City of Lowell. The township owns 18% capacity in the city’s wastewater treatment plant, giving the township the ability to treat approximately 250,000 gallons per day. The township is also a wholesale buyer of city water. The sewer agreement expires in seven years, and the water agreement expires in 12 years.
According to Moore+Bruggink’s calculations, the township will need 510,000 gallons worth of daily wastewater capacity in the future. Two main drivers of this demand appear to be a proposed development of light industrial and commercial businesses near the I-96 interchange and failing septic systems in the Eastgate development north of the Grand River.
Out of 108 recently failed septic systems in the township, a significant number were located in the Eastgate community. Given the lot sizes in the development, there is a concern the Kent County Health Department will require the township connect those homes to sewer lines should septic systems continue to fail.
Moore+Bruggink have recommended that the township work with the city to create a sewer authority, in which both municipalities would share ownership of the system. However, the city wanted an $8.5 million buy-in from the township to create the authority. Township officials seemed to think that amount was excessive, but the city declined to take part in a study to conduct a full evaluation of the system for purposes of creating an authority. Moore+Bruggink reports the city system will also need $10.7 million in repairs in the next 10 years.
As an alternative to using the city system, Moore+Bruggink says the township could build a $6.1 million water system by I-96 to meet demand for the development there.
To address wastewater needs, a $19.1 million sequencing batch reactor plant could be built on land off Grand River Drive. This plant would have a small footprint and employ commonly used technology that isn’t associated with any odor. Lowell Charter Township currently has a purchase agreement to buy 50 acres of land across from the South Grand River Riverfront Park, and it is expected the plant would need approximately 5 of those acres.
According to Moore+Bruggink, the township is currently pursuing a 40-year loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to pay for the projects. Revenue bonds would be used for the project and those would be repaid by utility payments, not general township funds.
Wastewater Treatment Plant Draws Residents’ Ire
Once the presentation was concluded, the floor was opened for citizen comments, and those in attendance had plenty to say about the proposal. Of the nearly 50 people in attendance, more than a half dozen addressed the board, with some speaking multiple times. At one point, a speaker asked anyone in the room who supported the plan to raise their hand and no one did.
Resident Greg Forbes was first to speak and expressed frustration over a lack of communication from the township. “We need to be advised about what is going on,” he said. Forbes noted that in his review of meeting agendas and minutes from the past year, he could only find one vague reference to the project in September.
A subsequent speaker had the same concern. “I don’t see anything [on the agendas] that says build a plant on the most beautiful property on Grand River Drive,” he said. That resident also took offense to Hale’s previous statement that those opposed to the project were harassing the property owner. Hale responded that his comments were a reflection of what the owner told him.
Brad Wade, who lives in the area of the proposed plant, noted an alternative location listed in the feasibility report was the site of the current Lowell Charter Township Hall. He suggested that location was nixed by the board since many of its members live nearby. However, a representative from Moore+Bruggink replied that it would cost $500,000 more to build near the township hall, and the location would result in higher ongoing operating costs.
Others asked why the wastewater treatment plant couldn’t be built near I-96 where commercial development is expected to take place. However, the engineering representatives noted that without access to the Grand River for discharge, a wastewater treatment plant by the expressway could need as many as 150 acres to accommodate a lagoon system.
Gladys Fletcher, who has lived on Grand River Drive for 44 years, wondered why the township would buy 55 acres of land if only 5 acres were needed for the plant. Hale responded that the owner wanted to sell the property that way. Fletcher also inquired into whether pipes from the development near I-96 would run along the road or cut across property. Told they would run along the road right of way, she later asked whether she would be required to hook into a sewer line in front of her house. The reply was that no one would be required to connect to the system. The only exception would be if a person’s septic tank failed, and the Health Department required connection to a municipal system as a result.
For their part, board members generally listened to citizen concerns with minimal comment. However, Vander Ziel expressed some frustration. “We have talked about this at a lot of meetings,” he said. He added that the board meetings rarely had anyone from the public in attendance. Some citizens responded that they would have attended if they knew it was being discussed.
Financial and Environmental Concerns from Residents
The concerns about the wastewater plant seem to be varied. While some residents were upset at the thought of a wooded property being converted to an industrial facility, others were focused on the perceived lack of transparency from the township board. They argued the township should have notified residents of their plans long before they entered into a purchase agreement.
Forbes, who met with Lowell’s First Look after the meeting, says his main concern is financial. “That’s our biggest concern because that affects everyone in the township,” he says.
The township is failing its fiduciary responsibility to residents, according to Forbes. He believes a 425 agreement between the city and township would be the ideal way to resolve this situation. The 425 agreement would entail the city extending its water and sewer system out to the development near I-96. In exchange, the city would be able to assess and collect taxes from any property connected to the system in the agreement area.
Forbes points to a 425 agreement between the City of Ionia and Orange Township for commercial properties along M-66 as an example of how a 425 agreement can be a win-win for both municipalities.
A 425 agreement has been discussed by the township and city but was ultimately taken off the table since the developer of the I-96 property is opposed to paying higher city taxes. Presumably, if a 425 agreement was used, the development near the expressway simply wouldn’t take place.
That wouldn’t be a problem for resident John Wenger, who also met with Lowell’s First Look after the township meeting. He doesn’t think the I-96 development, which will likely include a hotel, restaurants and light industrial uses, will ultimately benefit the community. While the township says the development will create jobs, Wenger is concerned they will be low-paying. “As a society, we really don’t need jobs like that,” he says.
Although most of the discussion at the township board meeting focused on the wastewater treatment plant proposed for Grand River Drive, there are also concerns about placing a water plant near I-96. While the Grand River is continually recharging the aquifer used by the city water system, a township system by the highway would rely on surface discharge to be replenished. Forbes, Wenger and other residents worry that water withdrawals will reduce the water table in the area and negatively impact Kinyon Creek which runs from near Cascade Road to the Grand River.
“It’s not just an issue of this one square mile,” Forbes says, indicating the proposed wastewater treatment site.
Both the city and township have agreed to use a facilitator, hired by the owner of the I-96 property, to try to work out their differences. The due diligence period for the purchase agreement on the land off Grand River Drive expires in mid-November. Although Hale previously said he expected the township would buy the land no matter what, given its prime location near the Riverfront Parks, he told residents during Monday’s meeting that the sale probably wouldn’t go through if plans for the wastewater plant were abandoned.
The next regular meeting of the Lowell Charter Township Board will take place on Monday, November 16, at 7pm.