Stories indexed with the term ‘unconstitutional takings’

Lawsuit Filed on City Footing Drain Program

A lawsuit has now been filed in Washtenaw County’s 22nd Circuit Court challenging the legal foundation of the city of Ann Arbor’s footing drain disconnection (FDD) ordinance.

A lawsuit has been filed in the 22nd circuit court challenging the constitutionality of the city of Ann Arbor's footing drain disconnection program.

A lawsuit has been filed in the 22nd Circuit Court challenging the constitutionality of the city of Ann Arbor’s footing drain disconnection program. (Illustration by The Chronicle.)

The ordinance was enacted in 2001. It establishes a program under which property owners can be required to disconnect their footing drains from the sanitary sewer system. Its intent is to diminish the risk of sanitary overflows into the Huron River and of sanitary sewage backups in homeowners’ basements.

In connection with that lawsuit, a motion for a preliminary injunction has also been filed, asking that the court order the city immediately to stop enforcement of its ordinance.

[FDDP-Complaint-Feb.27.2014-OCR] [FDDP-Motion-Feb.27.2014-OCR]

In September 2012, the Ann Arbor city council already took action partially to suspend the FDD program. That council decision of nearly 18 months ago came not in response to a formal legal action, but rather coincided with complaints from residents in the southeastern part of the city.

Then about a year ago, in February 2013, the city authorized a contract with an engineering firm to undertake a sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation (SSWWE) – in part to determine the impact of the FDD program to date. At a public meeting on the SSWWE held two weeks ago, on Feb. 6, 2014, the future status of the FDD program was portrayed as dubious: Even if the SSWWE study eventually identified an ongoing risk of sewage backups in Ann Arbor basements, the FDD would probably not continue “as is.”

The lawsuit claims the city’s FDD ordinance violates: (1) the Michigan state law setting forth the requirements for a government to take private property for public use; (2) the Michigan state constitutional prohibition against taking private property for public use without just compensation; (3) the corresponding U.S. constitutional prohibition against taking private property, which is a Fifth Amendment claim; and (4) the prohibition against violating the federally protected rights of others, which is a claim under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

The lawsuit asks that the court declare the FDD ordinance is “unconstitutional, on its face and as implemented.”

Plaintiffs in the case are Ann Arbor residents John Boyer, Mary Jean Raab and Anita Yu. They are represented by attorneys Dan O’Brien, who’s chair of the litigation department at Woods Oviatt Gilman in Rochester, New York; Irvin Mermelstein, a local Ann Arbor attorney in private practice; and Mark Koroi, a Plymouth attorney.

Background leading up to the filing, as well as a description of the filing, has been tracked on Mermelstein is the resident agent for a2underwater, LLC.

The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 27, 2014. It has been assigned to judge Donald Shelton.

Some of the legal theories on which the lawsuit is based have already surfaced in correspondence that’s become public. And some aspects of the city’s potential defense against a lawsuit may have already been described publicly by assistant city attorney Abigail Elias. That description came at a recent meeting of a citizens advisory committee that is supposed to make a recommendation sometime in the summer of 2014 on the future of the FDD program. For additional background on the topic of the footing drain disconnection program, see Chronicle coverage: “Backups: Lawyers, Sewers, Pumps.” [Full Story]

Backups: Lawyers, Sewers, Pumps

As part of a city study of Ann Arbor’s sanitary sewer system, a citizens advisory committee met on Jan. 9, 2014. The meeting was about backups – in several different senses.

Johanna Nader teaches a material science class at Slauson Middle School. The class projects were on display at the Slauson media center, where the most recent meeting of the city of Ann Arbor's citizens advisory committee

“Do not touch” reflects the attitude of some Ann Arbor homeowners toward their houses in the context of the city’s footing drain disconnection program. These class projects from Johanna Nader’s material science class at Slauson Middle School were on display at the Slauson media center. That’s where the most recent meeting took place for the city of Ann Arbor’s citizens committee that is advising the city’s sanitary sewer wet weather evaluation study. (Photos by the writer.)

The group’s charge includes making recommendations to the city council about the best way to manage the impact of rainfall on the city’s sanitary sewer system. Flows in the sanitary system are related to wet weather, even though the city has separate pipes for its sanitary and stormwater systems. That’s due to a variety of factors, including cracks in sanitary system pipes. Cracks can allow rainwater to soak into the pipes from above, and groundwater can come in from below.

But the factors that can increase the amount of water in the sanitary system during wet weather also include direct connections from stormwater systems into sanitary pipes. An example is a connection between a footing drain – part of a homeowner’s stormwater system running around the perimeter of basement foundations – and a sanitary sewer pipe. That’s a connection now prohibited by current building code, but still present in an estimated 16,000 houses in Ann Arbor.

If a deluge of water flowing into the sanitary system during a heavy rain becomes large enough, that can lead to two problems: (1) the extra volume can come up through the sanitary pipes in a homeowner’s basement, flooding the basement with a mixture of raw sewage and stormwater; and (2) the extra volume can overwhelm the city’s wastewater treatment facility, leading to the discharge of untreated sewage into the Huron River.

Over a decade ago, the city’s legislative response to this issue was to enact an ordinance that created a program requiring the systematic disconnection of property owners’ footing drains from the sanitary system. The city also created a way to pay for the work that uses funds from two sources – the city’s utility funds, or contributions from the owners of new developments. New developments help pay for the work because the city also created a program requiring that the developer of any new building in the city compensate for the additional load that the new building places on the sanitary sewer system. And the main way that developers choose to mitigate a new building’s added load on the sanitary system is to pay for footing drain disconnections.

So literal backups – of raw sewage in people’s basement, in the past and possibly in the future – were part of the basis for the committee’s work. But the group’s Jan. 9 meeting was devoted to “backups” in other ways as well. Assistant city attorney Abigail Elias presented the group with a couple of different assurances: (1) that the city would back the committee up if a lawsuit were to be filed against its members as a result of their recommendation; and (2) that she felt the city’s footing drain disconnect program had an adequate legal backup.

Meanwhile, rumblings that a lawsuit over the program could be filed continue to percolate to the surface. [Full Story]