May 22 2013 12:00 AM

Tunnel construction, pollution prevention and the tax abatement

The latest chapter in Niowave Inc.’s strained relationship with its residential neighbors is over the construction going on inside the company’s controversial pole barn. 

For the past month there’s been construction going on inside the structure that has left neighbors curious what exactly is going on there. The building permit attached to the building says the renovations are for “concrete testing tunnels.” 

“People wanted to know why these trucks are coming and going and moving a lot of dirt,” said 4th Ward Councilwoman Jessica Yorko. “The trust between the neighborhood and the company is not very strong. I think that it’s reasonable for those who live there to know more in-depth about the operation and the hazards or lack thereof related to the operations.”

Niowave Chief Financial Officer Mark Sinila said the construction was to “expand testing capabilities.” When asked if Niowave was constructing underground tunnels, he said the company was not. Efforts to reach Sinila to ask him why Niowave applied for a permit to build tunnels when it is not building tunnels were unsuccessful.

When asked how Niowave tests its particle accelerators, Sinila said it was proprietary information. 

“They’ve been very secretive and not forthcoming with information,” said Walnut Neighborhood resident Dale Schrader, who’s been a vocal opponent of Niowave and the pole barn. “The construction is tearing up the roads and has caused parking problems. We don’t know if it’s going to continue or if it’s just temporary. They need to communicate with us.” 

Bob Johnson, director of Planning and Neighborhood Development, said the building permit for the construction was approved in March.

He added that Niowave told the department the construction would be used for testing, but didn’t go into specifics. The only thing that Johnson was worried about was if the construction was up to code, which it is, he said. 

The construction is another example of the strained relationship between Niowave and the residents of the Walnut Neighborhood. Niowave sits in the heart of a residential neighborhood, so actions — including extensive construction — don’t go unnoticed. Yorko believes better communication between the two parties, regardless of what’s going on, would help end some of the drama that has ensued over the past year. 

“I would encourage Niowave to be open with the neighbors,” Yorko said. “There’s a very damaged relationship there that I hope can one day be repaired.” 

In other Niowave news, Jim Wilson, director of the Ingham County Bureau of Environmental Health, met with Sinila last week to get Niowave registered in the county’s Pollution Prevention Program. 

The program requires businesses that handle toxic or hazardous materials to report that to the county. The information is supposed to be updated annually in case of an emergency, like a fire or explosion, so that first responders can have an idea of what precautions to take when arriving on the scene. The “status report” must include the name of the material, the storage location, hazards associated with the material and how much is on site. Until recently, Niowave was not involved in the program. 

“They were not familiar with the program, which is not uncommon,” Wilson said. “It’s a new program, it’s only about two years old.”

Wilson said Niowave “probably” wouldn’t have to file regularly with the program because the only hazardous material it uses with any frequency is anti-freeze, which Niowave uses as a coolant in its lab. 

The tax abatement

In a May 6 letter to the Lansing Economic Area Partnership and the Lansing City Council, Walnut Neighborhood Organization President Rina Risper said the group is not satisfied by the proposed changes to Niowave’s pole barn, which has disrupted neighbors ever since it was erected in July. 

In late April, with LEAP acting as a negotiator, Niowave agreed to paint the pole barn’s siding and roof and do an overhaul of the parking lot and landscaping, but the neighborhood doesn’t think it goes far enough. 

“We appreciate the efforts put into this proposed solution; however, the consensus among WNO residents is that paint alone is not a sufficient fix to the façade,” Risper wrote. “In addition to concerns about the lifespan of an application of paint, this does not achieve the goal of making this large manufacturing facility blend into the neighborhood or the beautiful Walnut School building.” 

So where does that leave Niowave’s request for a six-year, $550,000 personal property tax exemption? The goal of the proposed changes was to get the neighborhood’s stamp of approval before the Council granted the abatement. 

Council President Carol Wood said she was scheduled for multiple meetings with Karl Dorshimer of LEAP to get a “briefing” of the negotiations with the neighbors and when to move forward with the abatement vote, but he’s canceled every meeting. 

She also said she’s asked the city attorney about the enforceability of the “universal agreement” that would tie the completion of the façade and landscaping changes to the tax abatement. But she hasn’t heard anything back. 

With no word from Dorshimer or the city attorney, Wood said the timetable for Council voting on the tax abatement is uncertain.