Stories indexed with the term ‘liability’

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]

Mixed Use Party: Noise at November Polls?

On the University of Michigan campus last Sunday, Aug. 25, a group of students organized as the Mixed Use Party convened their regular monthly meeting.

Mixed Use Zoning Map Speaker

Zoning scheme proposed by Mixed Use Party overlaid on a speaker icon. (“Art” by The Chronicle.)

The meeting was held in Angell Hall, and first on the agenda was discussion of a possible revision to the city’s noise ordinance. The ordinance revision – which was subsequently adopted into the party platform at the Aug. 25 meeting – would address the question of who is assigned responsibility for a violation.

Under the current city code, if the person responsible for the noise can’t be determined, a police officer has the discretion to deem the renter of the property (or also the property owner, or the occupant) to be responsible. Mixed Use Party members are concerned that the current code could create a scenario where the occupant of a property could be subjected to higher tiers of the allowable fines, based on noise ordinance violations of previous occupants.

Under the Mixed Use Party proposed ordinance revision, if the person who planned the noise-related activity can’t be determined, then it’s the occupants of the space where the activity is taking place who are responsible. And if that can’t be determined, then the responsibility would default to the property owner.

The basic kind of issue – appropriate assignment of responsibility for an infraction – was addressed three years ago by the Ann Arbor city council, but for a different ordinance. The city’s code on allowable storage of solid waste was amended by the council in 2010 – to restrict somewhat the ability of landlords to require tenants to pay fines associated with improperly stored trash.

Candidates affiliated with the Mixed Use Party will be contesting Ann Arbor city council races as independents in three of the city’s five wards. Sam DeVarti will be running in the Ward 3 race against incumbent Democrat Stephen Kunselman. DeVarti was the only one of the three Mixed Use Party candidates at the Aug. 25 meeting, which was sparsely attended.

DeVarti is a student at Eastern Michigan University, while the other two candidates are UM students. Jacyln Vresics is contesting the Ward 1 race along with incumbent three-term Democrat Sabra Briere and independent Jeff Hayner. In Ward 2, Mixed Use Party affiliate Conrad Brown will be on the November ballot with incumbent independent Jane Lumm and Kirk Westphal, who won an uncontested Democratic primary.

In Ward 4, Democratic primary winner Jack Eaton is unopposed in November. Ward 5 incumbent Democrat Mike Anglin faces no competition on the ballot, but resident Thomas Partridge is a declared Ward 5 write-in candidate.

Other aspects of the Mixed Use Party platform are somewhat broader than the proposed changes to the noise ordinance. For example, the platform includes a reconceptualization of the city’s zoning scheme, reducing the number of non-public land zones to three broad categories: heavy industrial, mixed use and restricted mixed use.

A highlight of the Mixed Use Party tentative infrastructure plan – which has not yet been formally adopted as an element of the party’s platform – might include selling Ann Arbor’s public parking system and using the proceeds to fund road repair, among other infrastructure. The infrastructure plan was discussed at the Aug. 25 meeting, but possible action was left for a future meeting.

More detail on noise and trash below the fold. [Full Story]