Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (June 14, 2009): At least 20 people attended the Ann Arbor city council’s Sunday night caucus to provide arguments for keeping the Argo Dam in place. The city council will have a work session on the topic starting at 6 p.m. tonight, before its regularly scheduled meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.
Other topics addressed to the councilmembers who attended caucus included the status of the East Stadium bridge repair, the proposed installation of parking meters in residential areas near the downtown area, and foliage obscuring sight lines along Glazier Way. The allocation of $75,000 to SPARK, which is on the agenda for Monday, received some discussion in response to a query from The Chronicle.
The three councilmembers remaining at the caucus at its conclusion (Sabra Briere, Mike Anglin and John Hieftje) had little to discuss as far as formulation of questions among themselves. Briere briefly mentioned to Hieftje that she’d had some conversations with councilmembers who were interested in exploring some revisions to council rules – to address emailing policies, among other things.
Discussion on the $75,000 of Ann Arbor SPARK funding came at the end of caucus after Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) had departed. As they are the two councilmembers who are likely the best able to speak to the issue, we will incorporate the somewhat unproductive caucus discussion into our report on any deliberations that might take place during the council meeting on the resolution that authorizes the funding.
Not present at caucus was Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), who was recently appointed to the executive committee of SPARK, a nonprofit agency focused on economic development. His perspective as a SPARK executive committee member will presumably be part of the deliberations at the council table as well.
Council is scheduled to have a formal public hearing on the question of keeping versus removing Argo Dam at its July 6, 2009 meeting. A work session devoted to the topic is scheduled for Monday, June 15, 2009 at 6 p.m.
At Sunday’s caucus, a couple dozen residents gave various arguments in favor of keeping the dam. We present in summary form some of the major points raised. But before launching into that summary, we point out that Joe O’Neal, whose construction company reconstructed the Argo Dam in 1972 (not 1920), prefaced his speaking turn at caucus with the joking announcement that it was an historic occasion – one on which he and Ray Detter agreed on something. Both are in favor of keeping the dam. Also worth noting is that former Ward 1 councilmember Bob Johnson appeared at caucus, in order to advocate for keeping the dam.
Engineering Status of the Dam
Several speakers cited an Other Voices piece written by executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, Laura Rubin, for The Ann Arbor News on May 7, 2009 as problematic, saying that it misrepresented the condition of the dam. In that essay she wrote, “Argo Dam is failing. That’s one reason the City of Ann Arbor is considering removing it. The Michigan DEQ found that part of the dam has deteriorated to the point where it could collapse and has ordered the city to fix or remove it.”
One speaker noted that the assessment of the DEQ report by Matt Naud – who’s the environmental coordinator for the city – is not that the dam is failing or is in poor condition, but rather that a plan needs to be put in place to maintain the toe drains. [Naud has stated at multiple public meetings that the dam is not failing.] Donald Gray and Joe O’Neal, who’ve examined the DEQ report, agree that there’s not an evaluation by the DEQ in the report that the dam is in poor condition. O’Neal’s assessment that the dam is in good condition is based also by his own physical inspection of the dam.
During the caucus discussion, the issue was raised of Mayor John Hieftje’s possible conflicting interests in deciding the question due to his prior status as a board member of the Huron River Watershed Council, and current status as an alternate board member.
In the course of the discussion, Hieftje indicated that his view on the dam had been misrepresented recently in The Ann Arbor News, saying that he had not yet made up his mind on the question of whether to remove it. The confusion had resulted, he said, from the fact that he’d indicated to The News’ reporter that he felt there were viable venues for rowers other than Argo Pond – a body of water that would disappear if the dam were removed.
Alternate Rowing Venues?
Barton Pond has been mentioned frequently as a possible alternative to Argo Pond as a rowing venue for the University of Michigan men’s team and the Huron and Pioneer high school rowing programs, as well as the other rowers who aren’t affiliated with a team. At caucus, a rowing coach made the point that the north-south orientation of Argo Pond protected it from the prevailing winds in a way that the predominantly east-west orientation of Barton Pond did not.
Access by rowers to Barton Pond along Country Club Drive, it was pointed out, would require a “departure from current use” as specified in the agreement between residents of Barton Hills and the city of Ann Arbor. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) elicited from one speaker the fact that a different possible access point – just above the Barton Dam – was not ideal in terms of safety because of the close proximity to the dam. Further, it was clarified, the water at that location – the end of the pond – was choppier due to the relatively long “fetch,” the expanse of open water over which wind can blow without interruption by land.
Bellville Lake, the venue used by the UM women’s rowing team, was briefly mentioned as a possible alternate venue, but there were unknowns associated with the location of a boathouse.
Sedimentation: Cost of Dredging?
In the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan (HRIMP) report, there’s a cost associated with the dredging of Argo Pond specified at $1.8 million – a figure criticized by more than one speaker. It wasn’t clear, they said, that dredging would be required at all on a “dam-in” scenario, because the rate of sedimentation was not known. Topographical maps comparing the river channel historically to its current shape, one speaker contended, showed very little change. That suggested, he said, that dredging might not be required.
Land Aquisition: Monetary Benefit?
The HRIMP report also specifies a major economic benefit for a “dam-out” scenario, which is attributed to the land that would be acquired due to the elimination of Argo Pond: $2.8 million. That economic benefit is the hypothetical cost of purchasing an equivalent amount of park land – which speakers at caucus criticized as not an actual monetary benefit. The benefit would only be realized if the land were sold, which is not being contemplated, they said.
Hieftje allowed that the city was not currently contemplating the acquisition of that amount of park land, nor was it thinking of selling the land, so the dollar amount was somewhat arbitrary. He said that he and other councilmembers viewed all the numbers presented in the HRIMP report with some skepticism and that they would be asking for recalculations in some instances.
Hydropower at the Dam
Payback scenarios for installation of hydropower at Argo Dam were calculated in an initial study and put the period of payback at close to 40 years. Speakers at caucus discussed the possibility that the payback period could be reduced to as little as 20 years if carbon offsets and a retail pricing model for the electricity generated were included.
One speaker explained that under the kind of cap-and-trade system that seems likely to be introduced in the U.S., the market price for the carbon that is not generated would be be worth 1 to 5 cents per kilowatt hour. Hydropower at Argo could generate an additional $40,000 per year in a carbon market, he concluded.
The electric rate used in the city’s payback model is based on selling the electricity to DTE at a rate of a little over 8 cents per kWh, with a 5% increase each year. The same speaker at caucus who discussed carbon credits pointed to the possibility of selling the electricity on a retail scenario, which is currently around 12 cents per kWh. On such a scenario, power would be supplied directly to homes or businesses close to the dam, or by setting up recharging stations for electric vehicles. More on the specific issue of hydropower can be found in The Chronicle’s report on the city energy commission’s deliberations.
Damping of Peak Flows
One presenter at caucus showed a poster from U.S. Geological Survey data illustrating how the introduction of dams on the Huron River mitigated against peak flows. It is peak flows, he said, that posed the greatest problems as far as downstream erosion.
It’s about the Pond: Backup Water Supply and Built Environment
Besides providing a rowing venue, caucus attendees pointed to other benefits to Argo Pond. One benefit was as a backup water supply for the city of Ann Arbor. (The city now gets 80% of its water from the upstream Barton Pond.)
Another positive aspect of the dam was the historical existence of some kind of dam and a pond dating from 1830, when Anson Brown had built a dam at the location of the current Argo Dam – the built natural environment of a dam with a pond is a major part of the city’s identity.
Voter Referendum on Dam?
In response to a question from the caucus audience, Hieftje indicated that most of the email he’d been receiving on the subject was in favor of keeping the dam.
The Chronicle posed the following question to councilmembers at caucus:
Chronicle: The HRIMP report found that the “dam-in” versus “dam-out” decision “comes down to one of community preference. Both options will require significant investment of capital and operation and maintenance dollars in addition to staff time.” One way to gauge community preference is through a voter referendum on the question. Have you given any thought to putting the question to voters? How would you weigh the merits of putting the question to voters versus deciding the question as a council?
Allowing that she had not previously considered the idea of a voter referendum on the subject, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said, thinking on the fly, that it would be important to specify with great detail exactly what the scenarios were that voters would be voting on. She also said that the outcome of a voter referendum would offer future councils less flexibility to change their mind in light of changing conditions.
For example, if council decided that it would pursue a five-year course of study for dam removal, that a council could at any point elect not to continue down that path. If there were a definitive voter referendum on the matter, then it would not be possible to change course without returning the question to the voters.
E. Stadium Bridge Repair
One resident asked for a status report on several aspects of the E. Stadium bridge repair. When will the drawings for the design be done and ready for citizen input? Will any of the funding come from the $23 million available from the street millage? What about general obligation bonds? Who is going to lead the project?
By “leading the project,” the resident meant to be asking who on council would be adopting the project as their own “baby” to shepherd it through to completion. Hieftje said he felt that it was something that all councilmembers thought was important. Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) said that she and her Ward 4 colleague, Margie Teall, considered it to be something they were especially committed to overseeing, given the bridge’s location in Ward 4.
As far as a timeline, Hieftje said that drawings and design were currently being developed. Funding, he said, would be requested at the top of the list for the next federal transportation bill – an effort supported by U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, congressman for Michigan’s 7th District, as well as U.S. Rep. John Dingell, congressman for the 15th District. Hieftje said that such projects were typically not funded by local sources. In response to the resident’s followup question, he allowed that some kind of match by local funds was typically a component – the Broadway bridges were funded with 1/3 local funds and 2/3 state funds.
Ray Detter, president of the Downtown Citizen’s Advisory Council, spoke at caucus against the introduction of parking meters in residential areas near downtown. Their introduction was approved as a part of the FY 2010 budget adopted recently by the city council.
There are two resolutions related to such meters on Monday’s agenda, which Sandi Smith (Ward 1) has been working on, together with Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). Smith alerted the monthly meeting of the Ann Arbor Democratic Party, held Saturday, June 13, 2009, that she’d be introducing the resolutions at Monday’s meeting.
One gives the green light to installation of parking meters in areas considered to be more commercial. From the resolution, those areas are:
- East Madison (18 spaces)
- Depot Street west of Broadway (16 spaces)
- Depot Street in front of Gandy Dancer (5 spaces)
- Depot Street Lot (20 spaces)
- Wall Street (115 spaces)
- Broadway (4 spaces)
The resolution also requires city staff to receive direction from the council before proceeding with installation of parking meters at any additional locations.
The second resolution on the agenda relating to parking meter installation has to do with the adjustment of rates at the 415 W. Washington parking lot, which were set somewhat lower ($2/hour) when the lot was first opened, because it was thought that the parcel would be quickly redeveloped – so the pricing strategy focused on making the lot as attractive as possible to drivers.
How are parking rates at 415 W. Washington related to installation of parking meters elsewhere?
If parking meters are not to be installed in all the areas planned by city staff as a part of the FY 2010 budget plan, then the revenue shortfall needs to be addressed. And part of the strategy for addressing that shortfall is – in cooperation with the Downtown Development Authority – to raise the parking rates to $3/hour at 415 W. Washington, and to revise the revenue-sharing agreement between the city and the DDA so that the city of Ann Arbor would receive the additional revenue.
Here’s a related comic about parking meters.
One resident called councilmembers attention to the fact that along Glazier Way, there was foliage growing so that it obscured sight lines for motorists, creating unsafe conditions for pedestrians. Enforcement of Chapters 40 and 47 in the city code would address those issues, she said. She indicated that she intended to create a website showing who the owner of record was for the offending properties, with links to the Google Streetview locations, reasoning that this might prompt the owners to comply.