City officials have been working with residents of the Bell-Kramer neighborhood on Ypsilanti's south side to reverse a zoning decision that inadvertently made homes uninsurable and unsellable.
A dozen residential properties on Bell Road and Kramer Street were included in the area's rezoning to industrial use due to their proximity to a former city-owned landfill. The rezoning established the houses as "non-conforming structures," so residents were able to continue living in them, but they weren't able to repair or rebuild the houses if they were damaged. The city amended its zoning ordinance in 2017 to allow for existing residential structures to be rebuilt, but they couldn't be expanded and new residential structures could not be built.
"It sent out a big scare amongst the homeowners down here for the simple fact that first of all our property was worth nothing during the time that it was zoned under (production, manufacturing, and distribution)," says Bell-Kramer resident Michael Simmons, whose family has owned a home in the neighborhood for more than 40 years. "If we had a fire, we couldn’t rebuild on the property. We couldn’t build additions to the property."
City officials say they sent notice to all of the affected Bell-Kramer residents before making any changes, but homeowner Erin Snyder says she and her neighbors only received letters from the city after the area had already been rezoned to production, manufacturing, and distribution (PMD). The rezoning had been in effect for a couple of years before the unintended consequences actually came to light when Snyder tried unsuccessfully to sell her home.
In late 2012, DTE Energy proposed a 1.3-megawatt solar array on the site of a former landfill north of the Huron Street exit off westbound I-94 near Spring Street, but the utility company eventually backed out of the project. The potential for development allowed the city of Ypsilanti to receive funding for an environmental investigation to determine the extent of contamination on the site and how it has affected the adjacent Bell-Kramer neighborhood. The testing determined there were contaminants, such as methane gas and lead, present on the old landfill. Some of the contamination had migrated south, toward the highway and away from the neighborhood.
The city notified residents of the contamination migration through a letter in the fall of 2013. Snyder says she was "freaked out" by the news, but she found some comfort in knowing the contaminants were traveling away from her property. She says she thought the risk for harmful health effects was minimal because the contamination generally followed the path of groundwater, which is well below the city's water and sewer lines.
In late 2014, the city rezoned the area from residential to an industrial-commercial use as part of a broader citywide rezoning in response to approval of the Shape Ypsilanti Master Plan, which was adopted in 2013. City planner Bonnie Wessler says the rezoning was primarily a result of the environmental testing.
In 2016, when Snyder put her home on the market, she learned it wouldn't appeal to potential buyers since it was considered a "non-conforming structure." The designation makes it difficult for a homeowner to get a mortgage or insurance on the property since the house couldn't be rebuilt. Snyder believes the decision to rezone the area to industrial essentially made her home unsellable.
Snyder and some of her neighbors, including Simmons, went before Ypsilanti City Council to inform officials of the effect the rezoning had on their home and property values. She thinks most of the city council members realized a mistake had been made and wanted to move forward with fixing it.
Council member Lois Allen-Richardson, who represents Ward 1, says she only voted in favor of the rezoning because she thought the houses in the neighborhood wouldn't be affected. Once she was aware of the problems as a result of the rezoning, she felt a sense of an urgency to work with the residents to "make them whole."
Throughout the process, Simmons sought to serve as a liaison between Bell-Kramer residents and city officials, amid the community forums and public hearings held in relation to the issue. He got the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and other governmental agencies involved to make sure the city was held responsible for ensuring the residential area was safe and free of contamination.
Wessler says the city’s primary concern before taking any action was the potential contamination and its potential effects upon residents. Three rounds of vapor intrusion testing were conducted over the course of 2017. The fourth and final round of testing is scheduled in July. Residents say the testing hasn't found any contamination on their properties so far.
At the end of January, a neighborhood meeting was held to discuss a proposal to rezone the residential parcels to residential use again and rezone the vacant parcels to the open space classification of "park." The Planning Commission held a public hearing, discussed the proposal, and voted to recommend the change to city council at a meeting on Feb. 21. City council held a public hearing and voted to approve the change at its March 20 meeting, and then voted to affirm the change on April 3. The area will officially be rezoned from industrial to residential use on May 3, after a 30-day period from the ordinance's adoption.
"It was something that never should’ve happened," Allen-Richardson says. "We shouldn’t have to go back and correct it."
Although the rezoning resolved the issues facing many Bell-Kramer residents, a few of them still might find it difficult to sell their homes. The owners of three properties located closest to the former landfill, including Snyder, are required to disclose information about the nearby environmental contamination to potential homebuyers.
"Although there aren’t any homes affected by the contamination as a result of the testing, it still leaves a black eye on the community," Simmons says. "It still leaves a black eye on individual homeowners because that’s something that needs to be disclosed upon selling their homes. ... I guess that’s just something that has to heal itself over time."
Snyder hopes potential homebuyers will recognize the contamination is traveling away from the property and not toward it, so the risk is probably minimal. She realizes it's probably not realistic given the city's budget issues, but she believes the city should offer to purchase property at market rate from any of the residents who want to sell it.
"In any other normal circumstance, if a corporation or a company has environmental contamination, then they are responsible for the remediation or the cleanup or the damages caused by that contamination," Snyder says.
Simmons agrees with Snyder's belief that the city should be responsible for helping homeowners who want to sell their property. He thinks residents should be reimbursed for the taxes they continued to pay when their properties were essentially valueless, and that environmental testing should continue periodically on the residential properties.
Simmons believes the rezoning issue could've been avoided entirely if city officials were more proactive and transparent. He would like the city to stop forging ahead on what it thinks would be best for the community instead of figuring out what the community feels is best for it.
"There’s proper protocol for any development and one of their first protocols is to host community forums to discuss the matter," Simmons says. "I think they skipped that part, and that part they can’t skip because that’s where the mistrust comes in."
As a longtime resident of the city's south side, Bryan Foley plans to continue to use his position on the city's Sustainability Commission to advocate for the wants and needs of residents. He's heading up a solar energy subcommittee in an effort to engage, inform, and solicit input from Bell-Kramer residents since DTE is once again considering installing a solar array on the site of the former landfill. If the project ends up happening, Foley wants to ensure it won't be obstructive, increase traffic, or infringe on residents' rights. He also believes the people who live in the Bell-Kramer neighborhood should be able to benefit from the solar array in some way.
"Development is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing," Foley says. "The city needs to grow. It needs to modernize. It needs some infrastructure repair. However, we need to see that the people who need help the most get the most help and that is the people in my community, my neighborhood, my relatives, my friends, my family."
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
Photos by Doug Coombe.