The buildings on the McLouth Steel property in Trenton and Riverview, some of which had stood for nearly 80 years, have nearly all been removed from the former steel mill site. Residents have voiced their concerns about what will next happen to the waterfront site. Photo by Larry Caruso

Residents join together in trying to influence McLouth zoning

Paula Neuman

Seemingly no one Downriver wants to see the contaminated former McLouth Steel property in Trenton developed into an intermodal shipping port.

That was brought out overwhelmingly during a four-hour online-only public hearing held July 22 by Trenton’s Planning Commission about updates to the citywide zoning ordinances.

More than 325 people joined the ZOOM meeting. Not one person spoke in favor of the shipping port. The Planning Commission also received more than 150 written communications in the same vein, said Chairman Aaron Castle.

People’s concerns include declining property values as well as the traffic, inconvenience and environmental impact to the area caused by an intermodal port bringing in more ships, trains and trucks.

After the hearing, Castle joined other commissioners in a 5-4 vote to approve the zoning updates, which include a change for the McLouth property to a newly created category — waterfront industrial —designed to put some restraints on development while not making it impossible and subjecting the town’s taxpayers to expensive litigation.

The zoning change still has to go to the City Council to be decided.

City Planning Consultant Benjamin Tallerico spoke early in the hearing. He described a legal “taking” — the seizure of private property or substantial impact on the right to its free use caused by government action and for which just compensation to the owner must be given, according to the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“We must keep in mind that we cannot zone property however we want when it’s owned by others,” Tallerico said. “They have rights.”

The property in question is 197 waterfront acres named to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List. The list comprises some of the nation’s most contaminated lands. Past Superfund cleanups have included the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, the 2010 BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, and the 2009 cleanup of a Florida wood treating company where 400 households had to be permanently relocated and more than a half million cubic yards of contaminated soil had to be buried in a containment cell.

Actual Superfund work on the McLouth site hasn’t begun yet. The owner is removing buildings and PCB-polluted subsurface structures now. Then Superfund experts will assess the hazards that are left and come up with a remedial plan. That cleanup work could start by the summer of 2021 — and is expected to continue through 2033. Even after the cleanup, the land likely won’t be suitable for residential or park use, according to the EPA.

Many people commented during the Trenton hearing about wanting the McLouth site to remain with its current mixed-use zoning status, although some of that land also has heavy industrial (I-3) zoning.

The city proposes giving the site — and that of DTE’s Trenton Channel Power Plant, which is expected to be closed next year —a new zoning classification called Industrial Waterfront (I-W), which is more restrictive than I-3 zoning.

Trenton Mayor Steven Rzeppa commented after the meeting about some of the misconceptions he heard about the site’s current zoning:

“While most of the discussion has centered around the mixed use portion of the site, something like one-third of the McLouth site, including half the waterfront, is actually zoned as I-3, which includes some of the most intense uses imaginable on the site and really worries me. Most folks do not realize this and think the entire site is mixed use. Current allowable uses on the I-3 portion include fireworks factories, slaughterhouses, oil processing facilities, and other heavy industry that could be very detrimental to our environment and quality of life.

“The entirety of the Riverview portion of the site is zoned this same way (I-3). The current I-W proposal eliminates so many of these intense uses — that again are already allowed under the current zoning map — and we need to do what we can to shore these things up sooner rather than later. 

“I also want to assure residents that we are going to do everything in our power to explore all legal and planning-based opinions to see what options we have with this matter. This is a huge decision for our community and we will leave no stone unturned.”

During the hearing, some residents also expressed concern about the reputation and past practices of the site’s owner. Wayne County foreclosed on the dilapidated McLouth site in 2017, then sold it to billionaire Manuel Moroun’s family company Crown Enterprises Inc., and MSC Land Co. LLC, also a Moroun business. MSC signed on to the Superfund cleanup agreement.

Grosse Ile resident Patty Trevino said during the hearing that she grew up in Detroit by the Ambassador Bridge — also owned by the Moroun family — and has witnessed what happened to her former neighborhood.

“That company does what they want,” Trevino said. “We’re talking about a family worth a billion dollars. I don’t know how you’re going to regulate that company. They can pay whatever fine you give them. Please look at the history.”

And other commenters suggested that a final decision on the zoning change should wait until an actual in-person hearing can take place without the current covid-19 restrictions on public gatherings.

“I’m of the opinion that this rezoning is being rushed in the midst of a pandemic,” said Ryan Stewart of Trenton, who added that many of the city’s senior citizens don’t have the ability to comment online.

Robert Johnson of Trenton said, “I see no rush to rezone it without more study and input. The testing for contamination is just about to begin.”

William Heil, president of the Grosse Ile Civic Association, also said the decision shouldn’t be rushed, especially because the Superfund assessment of hazards hasn’t yet begun.

Rzeppa said after the hearing: “The zoning ordinance updates began in 2016; it has not been a rushed process. In fact, most of us have argued that it has taken too long. This started before McLouth went into foreclosure and before Crown was even in the picture. We’d be having this conversation no matter who owned the site or even if it was sitting totally vacant.”

After the hearing, both outgoing Grosse Ile Supervisor Brian Loftus and Riverview Mayor Andrew Swift said that Trenton officials are in a tough spot when it comes to somehow balancing the legalities of zoning, the city’s need for tax base and the loud and clear opposition of residents to the intermodal shipping port proposal.

“I wouldn’t want to trade places with them (Trenton officials),” Loftus said. “The big picture must include the fact that Trenton has lost a tremendous portion of its tax base with this site lying fallow and the city will lose even more when the DTE plant is shuttered. This redevelopment will certainly help with a financial recovery so that the city can continue to provide the services the residents expect.  To attempt to deny the property owner a legitimate use of his property could become a form of condemnation and would be very expensive to take to court with little chance of prevailing.

“I can’t speak for the entire Board of Trustees, but I would negotiate with the developer to voluntarily add setbacks, berms, landscaping and buffers, which could be included in a zoning ordinance.”

Said Swift: “Action could be taken to reduce or eliminate the use of those unsightly storage containers.  But we’d also consider that the Moroun businesses have a reputation Downriver.  We all know that the likelihood of litigation would occur. It would cost the city millions of dollars and years of lost opportunity to oppose the redevelopment.  We would do what we can to maybe not change the course of development but influence and reduce the environmental impact while improving the financial stability of the city.”

Stephanie Tucker of Riverview, commenting during the hearing, urged residents to contact their members of Congress and get them involved.

“It’s going to take all of us to galvanize and keep this from happening,” she said.

Trenton resident Jennifer Knight had this message for city officials during the hearing: “This will be your legacy.”