Detroit water chief: Owners of green lots shouldn't pay hefty drainage fee

This Detroiter's rain garden is just what sewer officials like to see on vacant lots, soaking up rain. But they hit the

Help the environment — and pay through the nose.

That was the harsh lesson that organic gardener Nicola Binns got in her mailbox.

Binns, 60, who lives on Detroit’s east side, was stunned last fall to start getting water bills for two vacant lots she owns next to her house. They weren't water bills, exactly. After all, these are vacant lots; the water tab was $0.00.  Yet, on the same bills, Binns was dunned a drainage charge of $45 for each lot.

One space is a community garden, with veggies free for all; the other, another green space where, just this week, Binns had a rain garden installed through a grant from Detroit's Eastside Community Network.

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The two lots are like earthen sponges, soaking up rain that makes direct hits as well as the runoff whooshing from the home’s downspouts, said Drew Lathin, owner of Novi-based Creating Sustainable Landscapes.

“And rain gardens are so much cheaper” than expanding a sewer system, Lathin said, as he supervised the half-dozen helpers who dug an 11-foot-by-18-foot depression for Binns’ rain garden.

The side-by-side gardens are the very kind of improvements that city officials hoped residents would make when they began Detroit’s side lot sales, offering each lot for just $100 to an adjoining homeowner, said Craig Fahle, spokesman for the Detroit Land Bank Authority. Told that Binns and several other side lot owners were being charged drainage fees — and that they’d joined in a lawsuit against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department — Fahle took rapid action.

“DWSD shouldn’t be doing that to side lot owners,” Fahle exclaimed Thursday. “We want to encourage people to buy these, not the opposite,” he said. Fahle notified an official in the office of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who then called DWSD Director Gary Brown.

Brown echoed Fahle’s concern, pointing the way for Binns and the other plaintiffs to drop their lawsuit. Most side lot owners should not be charged a drainage fee, Brown said.

“More than 90% of the side lots are just grass. They don’t have any hard surfaces on them” to shunt rainwater into sewers, Brown said Thursday. As for Binns’ spongelike landscaping, he added: “We do not want to charge Detroiters for putting in community gardens and rain gardens.” 

Brown said DWSD would inspect Binns’ gardens as soon as possible and adjust her bills accordingly, perhaps to zero. So, how did Binns get assessed the drain fee for her leafy side lots? DWSD charged her on the basis of aerial photographs, a system used throughout the city's vast land areas to expedite assessments for thousands of new drain bills, Brown said.

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From left, Ian Bernstein of Ann Arbor and Julia Liggett of Pontiac work for Creating Sustainable Landscapes and they are creating a rain garden at the Detroit home of Nicola Binns on Wednesday, August 9, 2017.  (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

Brown said it was likely that large rectangles arrayed on Binns' property — her raised garden beds, built with care by young Americorps volunteers — looked on photos like paved areas. Also, an old three-car garage remains at the corner of her community garden site, which Binns hopes to convert to a community center for block-club meetings she hosts. And DWSD's aerial shutterbug surely caught as well. Without knowing more, Brown said he couldn't say why the other lot — the green space with a new rain garden — was dunned for drainage or why other plaintiffs in the lawsuit were charged for their side lots.

But DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said a side lot should be charged a drainage fee if it encompasses a driveway, garage or any other "impervious surface" that forces rain to run into city sewers. DWSD adjusts the fee when land owners add green infrastructure such as a garden, he said.

The city’s Meijer store on 8 Mile near Woodward gets a reduced drainage fee because “they have retention tanks that collect the storm water from their roof and their parking lot, and they use that to water their plants,” Peckinpaugh said. Other property owners, including homeowners with side lots, can reduce their drainage charges by showing that their land soaks up rainfall, he said.

Binns had tried that. After she contested her billings several months ago, she eeked out a green credit of $11.25 for each of her two lots, according to her water bills. That dropped her monthly tab to $67.50 — still too stiff, said Binns' lawyer, Lisa Walinske of the ReDetroit East Community Law Center.

“Our contention is that the imposition of a drainage charge (on side lot owners) is in actuality a rain tax, in violation of the Headlee Amendment,” Walinske said this week.

Both Binns and her lawyer said they sympathize with the DWSD’s need to improve its sewers. Binns' Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood has suffered repeated chronic basement backups when aged sewers couldn't  handle extra-heavy rainfall. The problem results from the system's design, widely used throughout metro Detroit. It has storm water running through the same big sewer mains that carry effluent from toilets. When rainfall is torrential, the sewer mains can back up, and then the excess must go somewhere — either into basements or the watershed, DWSD officials have said. 

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t like taking away this funding because we do need to fix the infrastructure,” Walinske said. Still, she and her clients are aghast that DWSD has charged steep drain fees to Detroiters who bought side lots.

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From left, Nicola Binns walks in front of her Detroit garden with Drew Lathin of Creating Sustainable Landscapes while talking about the rain garden being installed at her home on Wednesday, August 9, 2017.  (Photo: Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press)

The new policy of DWSD is aimed at extracting more revenue to rebuild the city’s aging sewer system. DWSD abruptly begun levying drainage fees this year on thousands of parcels in Detroit, including numerous churches that never before had paid the fees. After a protest led by the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, sewer officials backed down and postponed billing most churches until next July, DWSD said in March.

Still, most Detroiters must pay more now to account for water flowing from their property into city sewers, according to recent pronouncements from DWSD. Binns dutifully pays about $20 a month for drainage assessed to her house. But the drain fees on her side lots? She'd much prefer devoting that cash to sowing her neighborhood horn of plenty — the Marlborough-Essex Community Garden, replete with seven big scarecrows.

 “I just love doing it — it brings everybody together,” Binns said on a sunny morning this week, as two friends picked tomatoes. 

The city’s sewers should love it, too. Because with every heavy rain, instead of choking them with runoff, Binns’ rain garden will drink deep. And the Marlborough-Essex Community Garden will turn just that much greener a jewel of change.

Contact Bill Laitner: blaitner@freepress.com.

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