'Endangered' Esker?

Friends of Ormond Park pin legal hopes on remnants of an ancient, subterranean river

To the layman’s eye, the 25-foot-high landscape feature that dominates Ormond Park’s eastern edge is a hill. To a geologist, it’s the remains of a 15,000-year-old river that once ran under a miles-thick sheet of ice and remains a valuable natural resource for drinking water.

That’s the testimony of John Yellich, director of the Michigan Geological Survey at Western Michigan University, in a case in Ingham County Circuit Court. It pits neighbors of the 8.2-acre neighborhood park on Lansing’s east side against city officials, who want to cut the park in half by running an entryway through it to the city-owned Groesbeck Golf Course.

Neighbors argue the plan will threaten a stretch of the DeWitt Mason Esker. At 22 miles, it is one of the longest left in the United States.

“There’s very few eskers protected by parks today,” Yellich testified Monday. “This just happens to be one of them.”

Eskers are key geological formations, the Friends of Ormond Park argue, because of the unique way they were formed. Yellich testified that the deposits of gravel and sand were created by a river running under a glacier. The water movement swept away bits of clay. As a result, the clayless gravel and sand formation makes the esker ideal for acting as a filter for water.

Surface water, such as rain, trickles down through the gravel and sand, depositing heavy contaminates, as it makes it way into the Saginaw Aquifer. The aquifer is a vast underground reservoir of water, providing drinking water to millions of Michigan residents.

Based on the “endangered” status of the esker and the potential risk of runoff contamination, the Friends of Ormond Park sued the city, claiming the proposed entrance violated the Michigan Environmental Protection Act. Ingham County Circuit Judge James Jamo has issued a temporary restraining order against the city while he hears arguments. On Monday he adjourned the hearing to consider a motion by the city for a directed verdict to dismiss the suit. The city argues that Friend of Ormond Park had failed to make a case under MEPA.

Until Jamo rules, the city cannot continue work in the park, which sits closed. The city had argued that delays in the construction could result in economic penalties from the contractor, but it has not provided any documents to support that contention.

Yellich testified that the water cleansing capacity of the esker could be at risk with the proposed drive. That risk, he said, was posed by the increased traffic and runoff from the proposed entrance. He also testified the drive would impact access to the formation for educational purposes.

Joseph Abood, chief deputy city attorney, pressed Yellich on the impact of runoff, noting at the north end of the park was an approximately 1-acre paved parking lot for the golf course.

“Have you seen any evidence, any reports, anything, that shows an impact from that?” Abood asked.

“No,” Yellich replied.

Abood made a point that the parking lot had been operational for 28 years. He followed up his questioning of Yellich by asking Chad Gamble, the city’s chief operating officer and director of public service, if there was any evidence of groundwater contamination linked to the parking lot. Gamble replied, “No.”

While the lawyers battled over the geological formation, very little attention was paid to the potential issue of bats living in, and being impacted by, the new entrance way.

“Go out there any evening at dusk,” said Pat Lindemann, the Ingham County drain commissioner. “There’s bats out there. I am pretty sure there are Indiana or Long Eared Bats roosting there.”

To make room for the entryway, the city has already removed trees where bats might have roosted and plans to cut down more if it is allowed to continue.

Documents obtained by City Pulse show city officials and architects were worried about both bats potentially roosting in Ormond Park and impacting the construction schedules.

Dan Danke of the city’s Public Service Department wrote in a May 2 email: “Of a more critical issue is the Indiana Bat issue. Based on the literature, this is not prime habitat for the Indiana Bat (flood plain forest appear to be prime). However, upland forest openings have been noted in the literature as being used as habitat. The Indiana Bat seems to favor dead and dying trees for nesting — they prefer the loose bark. They also prefer to be 1 to 3 miles from medium to small rivers. Habitat trees are not to be removed from April 1 to October 15.”

City spokesman Randy Hannan said that “city staff concluded that the trees in Ormond Park are an unlikely habitat for Indiana or long-eared bats. Direct observation by city staff of the tree removal confirmed that no bats of any kind were present.”

In a followup email, Gamble declined to identify the staff involved, provide any reports they produced or any determinations, such as a “No Effects” determination from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Rest assured, as with all of our projects, there was thorough review regarding possible impacts to endangered species that may be present on the proposed work site,” Gamble wrote. “However, noting the prior statement it is our longstanding policy that the City does not comment on cases that are currently being adjudicated by the courts.”

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