Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

The Salamander Brief

11. May 2005 • Josh Steichmann
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Judge Donald Shelton will rule by the end of the day today on an injunction sought by “Protect Our Northwest Diverse ecoSystems” (or PONDS) to prevent construction of the proposed high school until further environmental study can be done.
Scott Howard, arguing for the plantiffs, contended that the proposed construction would eliminate three habitats for the small-mouthed salamander, an endangered species in Michigan (the salamander is plentiful in Ohio). He held that wetlands mitigation has “an 80% failure rate” in Michigan, and that mitigation would not be an adequate replacement of the habitat.
Richard Landau, arguing for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, said that there would be a net increase in the amount of habitat, as the mitigations would improve existing wetlands and result in a net increase in total wetland acreage.
Shelton eliminated one area of contention by being willing to assume that the salamanders were indeed small-mouthed ones, prior to the full battery of blood tests coming back from zoological experts. During a recess, Julianne E. Chard, the bond director for the school, said that her most recent information indicated that these were hybrid salamanders and therefore not protected under the Michigan Engagered Species Act.
Shelton had hard questions for Howard about the total acreage, which Howard did not seem to answer to Shelton’s satisfaction. Landau alledged that if the plantiff’s guidelines for no construction within 300 feet of the wetlands was followed, 90 percent of the area would be unbuildable by any developer.
Landau also cited the Michigan Department of Natural Resources endangered species director’s affadavit in which he said of the salamander population at the site “regardless of whether or not the mitigation is constructed, the chances of survival are low.” According to Landau, every effort has been made to artificially exceed the current natural habitat.
Denise Heberle, of the PONDS group and speaking after the trial, said that this was another tactic in the group’s continuing opposition to the high school and the site chosen.
“There are still numerous problems with the site: traffic problems, demographic problems, and accountability problems,” she said. “This school is going to be built in the richest, whitest part of town, and the kids who need the new school the most won’t be there unless they’re bussed in at 3 a.m.”
Both sides say that they’ll know how they feel about the judgement at the end of the day, when Shelton releases his opinion.
“If it goes your way, you’re happy. If it goes the other way, you’re angry. Same as all decisions,” said Howard.
Shelton denied the injunction in a 9-page brief. Thank you, LNM, for that and the correction on the lawyer’s name (I screwed the pooch on that one).

  1. Speaking as someone who just wrote an article about wetlands mitigation that focused on the study that gave us the “80% failure rate” statistic, I can say that’s a fundemental misrepresentation of the study. The reason that the failure rate was so high in Michigan was because the wetlands were simply not being built, as there was no enforcement of the permits. If the Ann Arbor Public Schools do, in fact, build this, then there shouldn’t be nearly as many qualms about allowing the wetlands to be mitigated.
    (I also left out the allegation by Chard that all of the people against the new school were childless, and the allegation by Landau that the people who were against this who lived in the neighborhood had already destroyed salamander habitat and were therefore hypocrits).
    Of the two lawyers, Landau was without a doubt the more articulate of the two, with Howard stammering and unable to cite law when questioned on point.
       —js    May. 11 '05 - 08:29PM    #
  2. Are the PONDS people working with the greenway folks? They sure spin lies like them.

    3am? For busing? That’s not even hyperbole. She’s either plain stupid or thinks everyone else is.
       —Kurt    May. 11 '05 - 09:43PM    #
  3. Richest, whitest part of town??? The site is at least a couple miles away from the wealthy heart of the Second Ward (northeast of Washtenaw Ave, south of Geddes).

    And who, specifically, “needs” a new school, as opposed to an existing school? I thought the idea was that Ann Arbor, as a whole, had too high a ratio of students to high schools, not that there was some subgroup which desperately needed a new facility.
       —Larry Kestenbaum    May. 11 '05 - 09:54PM    #
  4. Heberle was annoyed when I asked her and her group questions as they were leaving and kept demanding to know if I worked for “the schools.”
    I had a hard time explaining that I was going to write this up for a website, and just fell back on the fact that I work at Current.
    When I wanted to do follow-up questions, she said “That’s it, I’m leaving” and directed me to the website.
    I don’t think she knows that even people who aren’t from the Ann Arbor News can still spread a message, good or bad.
       —js    May. 11 '05 - 10:49PM    #
  5. Judge Shelton issued his opinion at about 5:15 today. He denied the plaintiff’s motion for an injunction and issued a 9 page order.

    For the record…the defendant’s attorney was Richard Landau, not Martin Landau…
       —LNM    May. 12 '05 - 02:16AM    #
  6. The salamanders are plentiful in Ohio. Screw them in Ann Arbor. Build the school and stop whining.
       —T.J.    May. 12 '05 - 07:41AM    #
  7. Martin Landau was on Mission Impossible.
       —JennyD    May. 12 '05 - 10:20AM    #
  8. Although the way this is going, getting this school through the courts is beginning to seem like Mission Impossible, so maybe it’s appropriate!

    Thanks for the coverage on this. The plaintiffs sound like a bunch of ninnys. Richest, whitest part of town?? I’m glad to know that I’m so wealthy, and wonder what my Hispanic and black neighbors think about this. The comment about needing to bus kids in at 3 AM is delusional, to say the least. I hope they seriously had better arguments than those.
       —KGS    May. 12 '05 - 12:40PM    #
  9. I know one of the plaintiffs and he is a nice, generally well-meaning guy. When I first heard him talk about this, I thought he just didn’t want the school there (which is true in large part), but he also brought up some good talking points about the wisdom of building a third large high school. The traffic patterns at this site are pretty scary. A large school of this type requires comprehensive athletic fields although only something like 30% of students in Ann Arbor participate in sports in high school. Bigger schools have greater need for parking and take up more surface area in one spot. Bigger schools are not flexible when enrollment drops. Also, it is true that mitigating wetlands is pretty much of a joke.

    That said, I am deeply disturbed by the PONDS comments about the problems of building a high school in the “richest, whitest” part of town. They obviously don’t interact much with other neighborhoods in the area. Students who have had long bus rides to Huron and Pioneer will now have shorter bus rides to the new school. They aren’t going to be bussing poor kids across town just to go to the new school in the rich neighborhood. Pioneer, Huron, and this new school will all have students across the socioeconomic range, which is good for everyone.
       —Juliew    May. 12 '05 - 01:46PM    #
  10. Julie: With regard to the mitgation, it can be done correctly. It’s just expensive and difficult (which makes it expensive). But everyone I talked to, from the Michigan Land Use Initiative to the DNR all said that wetlands mitigation was both possible and feasible when it followed a fairly strict set of guidelines. Again, the tremendous failure rate of mitigation projects under Engler was due to the total lack of enforcement more than any true problem with wetland mitigation per se.
    But yeah. I voted against the millage for the school, because I thought it was a poorly designed plan. However, I’m not particularly enamoured with the shifting rationales of the PONDS scum (sorry. They’re not really scum, but I’d been wanting to pun on PONDS ever since I saw it. I hate cute acronyms).
       —js    May. 12 '05 - 03:48PM    #
  11. Ha, PONDS scum. JS, I can see why you couldn’t resist.

    But I disagree with the idea that wetland mitigation actually works in the real world. While it is true that if you follow the guidelines you can create areas that look and act like wetlands to most people, they usually are very low quality with low biodiversity. They simply don’t have the geology, hydrology, micro-climate, acidity, etc. to be wetlands (or they would have been already). The best luck they have with “creating” wetlands is with farm fields that used to be wetlands but were tiled over to create the farmland. Breaking up the tiles and planting wetland plants often works well because the underlying natural systems are already in place.

    It is becoming more common to have wetland mitigation banking so if you destroy a wetland you can buy into a protected, several-thousand-acre, high-quality, undisturbed wetland somewhere in your region.
       —Juliew    May. 12 '05 - 05:24PM    #
  12. Julie: Yeah, wetland mitigation banking is one of the strategies that’s arguably better (one of the arguments against it is that it tends to encourage purchase of wetlands in areas that aren’t threatened, far away from where the wetlands are needed). And yeah, the best wetland mitigation is generally “wetland reclaimation,” where areas that were wetlands get turned back into wetlands (which is, for the record, what’s going on at the new high school site: the area, which was mostly vernal pools, had been drained for use as an “educational retreat”). But you can, again, actually mitigate wetland damage by the construction of new wetlands. Every single expert I talked to agreed on this, even ones who were definitely engaged in sticking it to the DNR and EPA. It’s just expensive and requires a lot of attention to detail.
       —js    May. 13 '05 - 12:28AM    #
  13. I know one of the plaintiffs and he is a nice, generally well-meaning guy.

    That’s a good point; it was unfair of me to call the whole group ninnys, when there are well-meaning and intelligent people on both sides of the issue. To be honest, the only argument I have heard against this site for a high school has been traffic. Since I live off of Maple, I take that exit a lot, and it can be dangerous. That’s the only issue that hasn’t been resolved yet to my mind.

    As for the wetland mitigation, it really does sound like they are going well beyond what is required by the state and seem to be earnest in handling it as well as they can. I question whether all the effort is worth it for just 7 salamanders, which are plentiful in another state, but that’s here nor there; the wetland has been built and the critters moved.

    I wish the school board had taken a whole different set of strategies on this. I would have liked smaller schools all around (maxing out at 1,000 students), perhaps another school like Community High, and a building designed for sharing its functions with the community at large. (like sharing the auditorium and pool with the neighborhood, for example) I also wish that the building was a lot more sustainable than it is, and that the school board asked for much more community input in the location and design. But if wishes were fish we’d all eat like kings… My point is, the school board has invested a lot of money to get this high school built on a tight schedule, and it just wastes our own tax money trying to hold it up any further than this.
       —KGS    May. 13 '05 - 02:32PM    #
  14. I’m kinda with KGS on that last point – I think there are a lot of things that are pretty dumb about the new high school design / site plan / location, but the sunk costs (political and monetary) by this point are so high, and the chance of changing it in any meaningful way so low, that I really think this just needs to be chalked up as a loss. Advocates of rational design practices (I wanted to say intelligent design, but that’s a loaded term in educational circles these days) ought to be considering how the school planning system can be fixed, accepting this school as a given, rather than trying to fight against the past actions of the system. Sigh.
       —Murph    May. 13 '05 - 05:12PM    #
  15. js: feasibility aside, I think if building a wetland correctly requires a lot of time and expense, it is unlikely to be done or done well. This school site may have a better chance than most because some of the underlying hydrology is there and a lot of people are paying attention and trying to make it work.

    It is too bad that no organization made an offer to buy the land and keep it natural. This is a lovely site with some spectacular old trees, the vernal ponds, a wetland, and nice geological features. If the school hadn’t owned it, it would have been houses ages ago, but it is hard to see it destroyed now because there isn’t much like it in the city limits. However, the school district isn’t in the business of providing parks for the city and they have owned this property for forty years with the express purpose of putting up another high school. It is too bad that this particular plan is the end result.

    Although I agree with KGS and Murph that this is a done deal, I also think fighting at this point is the only way to change anything in the future. There is no impetus for change otherwise.
       —Juliew    May. 13 '05 - 05:55PM    #
  16. Although I agree with KGS and Murph that this is a done deal, I also think fighting at this point is the only way to change anything in the future. There is no impetus for change otherwise.

    Will it really change anything though? the school board members that made these decisions will be long gone when – and if – another high school is ever built in Ann Arbor. I bet the school administration will be completely different by then, too. There isn’t any more school construction as far as I know, other than maintaining the existing buildings.

    Let’s face it, the biggest form of pushing change on the school board is through elections – and 2 of the 3 incumbants were re-elected. So have the lawsuits and other protests over the high school really done any good, or is it beating a dead horse? I’m thinking the latter, honestly.
       —KGS    May. 13 '05 - 07:55PM    #
  17. Well no, KGS, it won’t really make a difference. Just like going to any meeting on the greenway won’t make a difference and talking to City Council or the Planning Commission about the Master Plan or the ordinances won’t make a difference. But it is nice to pretend that every once in a while something good comes out of citizen participation.
       —Juliew    May. 13 '05 - 08:52PM    #
  18. Juliew, I’m still happily delusional I guess. I think that going to meetings on the greenway, city council, and planning commission can make a difference, and I’m all for citizen participation. It’s just this issue that’s pretty much set and done as far as I’m concerned.

    Now about that greenway… grin
       —KGS    May. 13 '05 - 09:11PM    #
  19. The reason for not having smaller high schools is Proposal A. (Now we’re onto something I actually know about: schools.)

    Prop A took school finance out of municipal taxes (mostly) and sent it to the state. The state sends each district some amount per pupil (at the moment about $6500). Local districts are allowed to tax a small amount to add to that if they wish, but that amount is capped. And districts get a small amount of federal funds for compensatory ed for poor kids. So Ann Arbor can spend no more than about $9000 per pupil on OPERATING costs. That is, salaries, electricity, curriculum materials, etc.

    That finite amount of money is what drives the size of the high school. It is not cost-effective to have smallish high schools, each with its own principal, librarian, school nurse, etc. It is more cost-effective to have somewhat larger schools.

    To be honest, I’m surprised they didn’t close Pittsfield school, the smallest elementary school, and send those kids to nearby schools, and thus save some money.

    So, we can vote to build as many buildings as we want. We can also skirt Prop A and bond to buy things like musical instruments and to create sinking funds. But we can’t spend more to actually staff and operate the buildings.
       —JennyD    May. 13 '05 - 09:21PM    #
  20. JennyD raises an interesting point, that is, building a new comprehensive high school will reduce the amount of money to hire teachers to teach the kids. That in a nutshell is why I voted against the millage proposal to build the new school even though I liked everything else about the bond proposal. For this reason, I’m all in favor of stopping this ill-conceived school any way possible (more power to the salamanders!) As far as the overcrowding goes, why did the school board reject a method my school system used and that is, have the elementary schools host the 6th grade?
       —Chuck    May. 13 '05 - 11:22PM    #
  21. Regarding the comment about only 30 percent of Ann Arbor students taking part in sports, that may be partially a function of the size of the existing schools. When you have 2000+ students, you have to very talented to make a team with limited space—such as hockey, baseball, basketball, football, etc. I attended Huron when it was smaller than it is now, and there were very good athletes who couldn’t participate in sports they’d grown up playing.

    My concern about the new high school is similiar to Chuck’s—I’m not sure if Ann Arbor will be able to provide the same quality of education with 3 high schools as it did with 2. And I wonder if the same variety of courses be available (when I attended Huron there were two levels of calculus and precalculus)? It may be that reducing overcrowding is worth this tradeoff, but if there is a tradeoff I haven’t heard it acknowleged.
       —PeteM    May. 17 '05 - 02:23AM    #
  22. It seems to me that the most effective method of protecting this particular set of wetlands would be for those who want to protect the site to buy the site from the school at current market value. This would allow the school a tidy profit and provide the ability to look elsewhere for a site. Cost did seem to be a limiting factor for the school board’s search so I am sure they would consider this. Anyway construction is now underway but that’s my view.

       —R Gothie    Apr. 7 '06 - 05:42PM    #