2017-04-13 / Front Page

Why do sewers stir emotions?

In Leland, Northport, sewers led to recalls
By Alan Campbell
Of The Enterprise staff

STEVE PATMORE, pictured in front of the lagoon at the Leland Township wastewater treatment facility on Friday, has seen his share of sewer controversy in Leelanau County over the years. Patmore serves as the township’s sewer administrator. STEVE PATMORE, pictured in front of the lagoon at the Leland Township wastewater treatment facility on Friday, has seen his share of sewer controversy in Leelanau County over the years. Patmore serves as the township’s sewer administrator. Municipal sewer systems in Leelanau County have somewhat of a checkered past, but not because of their science.

By most accounts government-run sewer systems in Leelanau County operate just fine, fulfilling their missions of collecting human waste into one plant where it can be treated and released safely into the environment.

“I think we have good systems up here,” said Tom Fountain, Environmental Health Director with the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department. “We have good engineering firms with people who design and maintain them in this part of the state. They know what they are doing, and they do what’s right.”

THE NORTHPORT/Leelanau Township municipal sewer system has been working well, but continues to draw criticism in the community. This photo was taken during construction in 2008. THE NORTHPORT/Leelanau Township municipal sewer system has been working well, but continues to draw criticism in the community. This photo was taken during construction in 2008. But it’s generally not the science that divides communities. And strange as it might seem, sewers can be very emotional.

Steve Patmore, an engineer who is sewer administrator in Leland Township, was working for a Traverse City firm when the Leland municipal sewer was proposed, debated, praised and ridiculed, and eventually approved. Eventually the sewer led to a recall of the Leland entire Township Board, and the supervisor was removed from office.

“I was living here then. I know some of the stories, but I’m glad I wasn’t involved with it,” Patmore said.

Has Patmore ever heard of unanimous support for a new sewer?

“I don’t think that happens. I hear people say that it was badly needed, and I hear people say the opposite.”

Two of the main opponents to the Leland sewer were Stephen and Mary Lou Mikowski of Lake Leelanau. They were involved in the formation of the Citizens of Leland Township for Fair Treatment Organization, whose 12 board members met monthly for about five years. With a logo featuring a galloping horse, the organization topped out at about 200 members.

Mikowski says the organization did not achieve its goal of preventing the township from forcing homeowners to hook into a sewer system they did not need. Eventually a court order forced the Mikowskis to abandon their private septic and drain field system.

Stephen Mikowski can still recite dates and facts about the Leland sewer that otherwise have been lost to history.

“The original plan was in 1983, and it had just 38 users, mostly commercial, with a drain field north of Leland. The school and large downtown users were the main users,” he said.

But soon aspirations for the sewer grew, encouraged by a federal grant of $4 million. The township worked with the Leelanau Board of Public Works to sell $2.9 million in bonds in 1992; they were retired in 2010.

Sewer districts were created in the unincorporated villages of Leland and Lake Leelanau, with township-owned property south of Provemont Pond chosen as the site for a treatment plant. Final hook-ups were made in 1993. Strangely, no sewer hook-ups were provided down M-204 for low-lying lots on the south shore of north Lake Leelanau, which Mikowski blamed on meddling federal guidelines.

“Let’s face it — if they are giving away the money, they are going to want to have some control,” he said.

The science behind the Leland sewer system has worked, Patmore said, although maintenance and upgrades have been required. The latest project, remediating the build-up of phosphorous around treatment beds, was completed last year at a cost of $460,000. Another $286,000 is needed to replace a plugged sewer pipe running under the Leland River, causing the Township Board last month to hike sewer rates by 56 percent.

The percentage is somewhat misleading in that users were paying $127 a quarter until the bond was paid off, promoting the township to lower the rate to $90 per quarter. The increase put the rate at $148 per quarter.

Without the sewer, Patmore says businesses — especially restaurants — would have difficulty keeping their doors open and homeowners would be impeded from expanding on small lots.

“Sewers have their place, especially with concentrations of people. Leland and Lake Leelanau are concentrated with people, and have small lots with individual, onsite wells. So the drain fields for the individual lots had to be affecting the water quality. That’s based on my knowledge of sewers. I don’t have any data to prove that,” he said.

He gives the Leland sewer a passing grade.

“I’d say a “B” for being proactive and being financially responsible. The system itself has had issues because of the type of system it is,” Patmore said.

Still controversy in Northport

The municipal sewer system in Northport Village and Leelanau Township has not outlived its controversial beginnings, and may have a rocky decade ahead unless its financial situation changes.

That’s because every year the village and township draw $60,000 from their general funds to keep ahead of sewer bonds, which won’t be paid off until 2027.

As in Leland Township, a recall effort followed approval of the sewer, although all Northport Village Council members survived including Barb Von Voigtlander, who went on to be elected village president. After village administrator Greg King retired, Von Voigtlander offered to take over the job for $1,000 a year partly to improve village finances.

She’s been a big supporter of the municipal sewer, saying it was needed to spur business growth and keep the village marina open.

“The DEQ was up here on a regular basis ready to shut down the marina if we didn’t do something with a sewer in Northport. They didn’t feel it was a good situation, and we had a lot of aging septic systems and the soils can only take so much or you’re in trouble,” Von Voigtlander said.

The result has been good for the community, she continued, citing a survey conducted by Village President Phil Mikesell showing an $8 million economic influx into the village that includes businesses such as Tucker’s and Northport Creek Golf Course.

“And we’ve seen a surge of people fixing up homes and renovating, so I think overall values are up because of that,” she added.

Folks on opposite sides of the sewer, however, agree on little, even issues that would seem to be black and white.

Dave Brigham held serious misgivings about the sewer after learning its scope even though he doesn’t live in the village or the sewer district. Brigham said the numbers just didn’t add up dating back to applications to the DEQ.

Brigham, who drew many of his conclusions from a report compiled by village resident Howard Cann, said anticipated usage was inflated by the engineers who designed the project.

“The number of existing users was the number you divided into the total cost that gave you the individual’s cost for the project. Because Fleis and Vanderbrink overstated projected usage to the DEQ, the DEQ funded the project based on false, overstated numbers. That’s what created the deficit,” he said.

Brigham says the number of anticipated users — which should not include future growth — was stated as 631. The system now serves 509 accounts including commercial and residential users.

“The whole thing is an unhappy reality. The things the citizens were concerned about turned out to be true, so here we are. I think if the experts had done their job, we wouldn’t be here.”

Township resident Allan Dalzell, in a letter to the Leelanau Township Board, wrote that even growth, should it arrive, won’t provide a financial solution. He said there are only 95 parcels within the township’s share of the sewer district with the possibility of creating 12 more lots through splits allowed in the township Zoning Ordinance.

“The last figure I heard was that it would take an additional 99 (residential users) right now in order for the township to collect the amount needed to pay off its debt on schedule,” he wrote. VonVoigtlander sticks by the application. “At the time, there were several entities involved including the state of Michigan and we could not have sized it too large for what we needed. Unlike what some people think ... the state said this was the appropriate size for the number of people. They told us they would not approve it on projections of future users,” she said.

One anticipated sewer user, however, did not materialize. It was anticipated that the former Leelanau Memorial Hospital property, then owned by Northport Highlands, would develop fully into a senior housing complex. Phase 1 alone was thought to require 62.5 Residential Equivalent Units (REUs), but only a fraction of that number are being used. “It was a big number of REUs and the developer swore up and down that they needed them. The units never came into fruition. Now, I don’t blame the developer ... hindsight is always 20-20, but at the time it looked like that project was a go,” Von Voigtlander said. As in Leland, though, the system itself has been performing well. Von Voigtlander said a municipal sewer was needed for the community to continue.

“We’re pleased with the system,” VonVoigtlander said. “It certainly has been an economic boost. When we were going for it we had two things in mind: a clean environment and the other was economic.”

In Suttons Bay, developer paid half up front

The Village of Suttons Bay was also counting on a developer when it expanded and improved its sewer system 12 years ago. But the owner of the proposed BayView development paid half of the $4.2 million project up front.

“The citizens only had to pay half,” said village manager Wally Delamater. “If we had shortened the capacity, we would have still had to pay $3 million to update.”

But consequently, village rates did increase, and now users pay on average more per month than their counterparts in Leland and Northport. However, its hookup fee of $5,500 is slightly less than Leland and far below the sizeable $17,598 charged in Northport.

The Suttons Bay municipal sewer was the first established in Leelanau County, and some of its infrastructure dates back to the 1930s. That’s why the Village, with help from a $500,000 grant from the DEQ, is in the process of analyzing piping, manholes and other parts of the sewer.

“At the end of the period this year, we’ll have an asset management plan ... we’ll have a true picture without having to guess at our infrastructure,” Delamater said.

Delamater said the village is planning for the future, anticipating the need for upgrades before they are needed.

“As tough as it was, the council didn’t kick the can down the road. Communities are having a tough time because they haven’t raised their rates,” he said.

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