Environment Picture

Highway through wetlands, use of DDA funds calls into question wisdom of ignoring “Smart Growth” policies

Oakland County project dances around EPA ruling against it
“I almost drove my car off the road when I saw it,” said Sally Pierce of Walled Lake. “People were coming up to me at church asking me if I saw it,” said Julie LeBlanc of West Bloomfield, president of MEC member 4 Towns Citizens Action Team.

“It” was the quickly accomplished, complete clear-cutting of the once heavily wooded entrance to the former El Dorado Golf Club directly across from the northern terminus of the M-5 Connector in Oakland County’s Commerce Township.

This property, and Links of Pinewood golf course adjoining its northern border, is now owned by the Commerce Township Downtown Development Authority (DDA). The clear-cutting is one more controversial episode in a project, referred to as Commerce Commons, planned for the 330-acre golf course property northwest of Detroit. Neighboring residents say the planned four-lane road, open air shopping, or “lifestyle” mall, and at least 800 homes will diminish their quality of life and property values.

The clear-cutting brought some 20 residents of Kingstowne Condominiums to a DDA meeting in March.

“The wind is stronger. The lights from the traffic on Pontiac Trail are terrible even with the blinds down,” said one resident.

“They even cut trees within our boundary line,” said Kingstowne condo President David Miller, adding with obvious disgust that “now I can see Wal-Mart.”

Beyond the unquestionable discomfort to nearby residents lie larger issues.

Why is the legislation created to upgrade old downtowns able to spawn a brand new development unrelated to, and nowhere near, Commerce’s old downtown?

How can a road which is the obvious extension of the M-5 Connector circumvent the EPA’s ruling that the extension go no farther, based on the significant environmental features in the land north of the current terminus? More than 100 acres of wetlands and wetland soils lie in, or under the impact of, the future right-of-way of Martin Parkway—the road which will connect to and extend the M-5 highway. But the EPA ruling applies only to roads using federal funding. The Commerce DDA plans to pay the estimated $17 million for the road from its own funds, so the ruling does not apply. The Federal Highway Administration has issued a finding of no significant impact “on human or natural environment,” allowing the project to proceed. So down went the trees!

The DDA describes Martin Parkway as a way to reduce congestion. Susan Averbuch of Concerned Citizens of Commerce said “let’s do the math.” Using facts from the environmental assessment and conservative estimates of the number of vehicles per day that 800 homes and the lifestyle center would generate, the minimum number of vehicles to travel Martin Parkway daily would be 32,542. “This will not reduce congestion. It will increase it,” she said.

And where is the focus on “context sensitive solutions” professed by federal and state highway departments vis-à-vis this project? CSS suggests that not only traffic safety and congestion, but environmental, historical and social considerations be brought to bear in transportation decisions.

When (using 2006 figures) 5,321 homes in Oakland County and 800 in the township next to Commerce are in foreclosure, are 800 more homes likely to be vacant ones? With some 24 empty storefronts visible in strip malls within less than three miles of the proposed new mall, is it likely to be an empty mall? With gas approaching $4 a gallon, with the world’s eyes focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, is it wise land use to sacrifice health-giving trees and open space to draw more commuters farther from their jobs? And is it a priority use of precious taxpayer dollars in an increasingly tight economy to proceed with such a project?

“We feel that citizen monitoring of this project has made some difference, but for many reasons—not the least of which is current DDA legislation—we have lacked the ability to make that difference substantial,” said 4 Towns CAT Vice President Lorna McEwen of West Bloomfield.

For information on the project, or to lend assistance to the 4 Towns Citizen Action Team, contact Lorna McEwen, (248) 788-3940 or e-mail her at lorna408@aol.com.
RELATED TOPICS: land use, Smart Growth
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