City Council looks at Superfund site designation, swapping Ramlawi for Ackerman on police oversight commission

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 - 8:51am

The Ann Arbor City Council discussed involving the Environmental Protection Agency in cleaning up the Gelman dioxane plume as well as altering the makeup of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission at a meeting on Monday.

The Ann Arbor City Council discussed involving the Environmental Protection Agency in cleaning up the Gelman dioxane plume as well as altering the makeup of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission at a meeting on Monday. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

The Ann Arbor City Council discussed involving the Environmental Protection Agency in cleaning up the Gelman dioxane plume as well as altering the makeup of the Independent Community Police Oversight Commission at a meeting on Monday.

City Council moved to replace Councilmember Zachary Ackerman, D-Ward 3, with Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, as one of the body’s two liaisons to the ICPOC. Calls for a police oversight commission became more prominent following the 2014 shooting death of resident Aura Rosser at the hands of Ann Arbor police officers, and City Council adopted an ordinance in October establishing the ICPOC after months of debate and controversy.

Ramlawi, who is one of City Council’s liaisons to the Human Rights Commission, said the success of the commission was important to him.

“I felt that in the current state of affairs, it would strengthen the commission and also would tie the two commissions in our city — the Human Rights Commission and the Police Oversight Commission — in a way that would allow for more communication between the transition and for the newly formed body to do its work,” Ramlawi said.

Ramlawi noted an argument made by a resident during public comment that he would be better suited to sit on the ICPOC than Ackerman, who is white.

“This is a great personal interest of mine,” Ramlawi said. “I was referred to as a person of color earlier. It is true, I identify with being a minority, being Palestinian, but born and raised in this country, I do have a great empathy for people who get the raw end of the stick.”

The measure, co-sponsored by Ackerman and Ramlawi, was initially recorded as receiving unanimous support, but Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, clarified that he opposed the measure and asked the city clerk to amend the minutes of the meeting.

The council also voted in favor of a measure directing City Administrator Howard Lazarus to meet with other intervenors in a lawsuit against Ann Arbor-based Gelman Sciences. In December 2016, the city won the right to intervene in the case, which is ongoing and seeks to hold the company responsible for the costs of cleaning up the plume of 1,4 dioxane that resulted from the manufacturing company’s improper disposal of wastewater.

The resolution also encouraged getting the EPA to aid in dealing with the contamination of 1,4 dioxane — a carcinogenic compound — through its Superfund program.

Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, said city officials met with politicians including U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on Monday morning to discuss steps forward.

She noted the city’s ongoing efforts in court and its collaboration with bodies such as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, formerly known as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“I just want to repeat that the EPA is not the only solution,” Griswold said. “What I refer to is the full-court press. We need to be pursuing this in the courts, we need to continue to work with EGLE — the former MDEQ — we need to be exploring an EPA Superfund site, and if these do not hold promise, then we will come back to our constituents and ask for a millage to clean it up because we will not stand still for another 30 years.”

Councilmember Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, thanked state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, and state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, for attending the meetings as well, which he said were among the most informative discussions he had had on the issue of the dioxane plume since becoming a member of City Council. Smith said the Gelman plume receiving Superfund site designation could adversely impact property values prior to the completion of the cleanup.

“This isn’t going to be a short-term cleanup. So, there are real concerns about the short-term property values if the determination were to be made that, if you lived above the plume, you were in the Superfund site,” Smith said.

According to Smith, officials from the EPA told him these properties above the plume would not actually be listed as part of the Superfund site. Because of this, Smith said, he would vote in favor of the resolution. He also said it was productive to meet with other government officials outside the “politically charged” environment of a public hearing to discuss the issue.

Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, said she was skeptical at first too, but for different reasons than Smith. She noted worries about the EPA at the national level because of its direction under President Donald Trump’s administration.

“The EPA nationally scares me, given the state of our current administration, so I felt a lot apprehension around that, and so I was skeptical,” Grand said. “But I think the idea that we really want to evaluate the pros and cons of all of the approaches and come together with our community partners and have a strong unified front made me get completely behind this.”

Hayner said the Superfund program remained strong “in spite of the current administration.”  He also said the EPA’s help would not override the city’s involvement in the lawsuit against Gelman.

“The hope is that when we go through this process — which can be a long process — that the outcome is going to be that the polluter pays and that’s what we’re pushing for with court case,” Hayner said. “This is not going to supersede that; it’s not going to push that to the side; it’s one of many tracks that we’re taking.”

The Gelman plume has been a pet issue of Hayner’s — something he pledged to address as a member of City Council.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where 10 years from now somebody asks me, ‘Why didn’t you do anything about this, Hayner? You had four years to act,’” Hayner said. “Well, we’re acting, and we hope that these actions bear fruit.”

The resolution received unanimous support. Councilmember Jane Lumm, I-Ward 2, said City Council had been discussing the Gelman plume since she first was elected to the body in the 1990s.

“One thing is abundantly clear: No one is satisfied with the progress we’ve made on the issue,” Lumm said.

Council also voted down amendments to the city’s zoning code to account for accessory dwelling units — small units either attached or adjacent to a home in a neighborhood zoned for single family housing — to allow property owners living on-site to rent out to tenants. The proposed changes included the addition of more zoning districts where ADUs are allowed and removing the requirements that any new entrance be located on the rear side of the structure and have a 5,000-square-foot lot size minimum.

Ackerman serves on the Planning Commission and supported the ordinance. He said ADUs provided another way to combat the city’s housing shortage, in contrast to major apartment buildings and other downtown developments.

“Accessory dwelling units allow us to chip away at our housing supply issue, and the fact that we do have more demand than we do have supply of housing in a very small-scale way, one that speaks to the character of neighborhoods, one that brings single-family homeowners into the equation and into the solution,” Ackerman said.

Hayner accused members of the Planning Commission of advocating for the removal of single-family zoning and criticized the cost of ADUs.

“One of the big obstacles to creating these ADUs is their unaffordability — the expense of their construction. So, I wouldn’t really categorize these as an affordable housing issue,” Hayner said.

Grand argued the change would be an “incremental” shift and she cast doubt on the commitment of the council members who opposed it to seeing more affordable housing in the city.

“That’s not a radical change,” Grand said. “We do need some radical change, but this is not it. So, if you are going to label yourself as someone who is progressive, someone who is in favor of affordable housing, you vote your values. So, go ahead, vote no, but that is a vote against affordable housing, that is a vote against housing, you know, and I hope you’re held accountable for it.”

Ramlawi pushed back against Grand’s statement that a vote against liberalizing the ADU code was a vote against affordable housing.

“It’s been said over and over again, but somehow we’re conflating affordable housing with this issue,” Ramlawi said. “The cause of concern that our residents have — that my constituents have — with the change in this ordinance far outweighs the handful of units that perhaps will come out from this. I just want to go on record and say that this is not an issue of affordable housing.”

Mayor Christopher Taylor supported the amendment, calling the resolution “wise.”

“I think it’s right to say that now ADUs are difficult to construct, are difficult to put together because of construction costs, but I think it’s important to note that today’s new construction in these contexts is tomorrow’s more affordable housing,” Taylor said. “When we build housing, the costs are then fixed. As rents go up, the housing associated with or enabled by those initial costs becomes, relatively speaking, more affordable over time.”

The ordinance failed in a 6-5 vote.