For months, a coalition of northwest Detroit residents has been fighting against a proposed asphalt mixing plant. When another hearing would decide the fate of the surrounding neighborhoods, they showed up.
The early morning sun welcomed a small army of neighbors gathering outside the North Rosedale Park Community House, nestled inside a haven of maple and oak trees.
They united to fight against a proposed asphalt mixing plant before the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals Tuesday.
Among them was Margaret Weber, who’s lived here since 1974. For her, the proposed plant was another unwelcomed driver of plight.
Joining Weber was Erma Leaphart, who imagined all the catastrophic ways the asphalt plant’s possible arrival would aggravate asthma, a chronic illness lasting a lifetime.
One by one, the neighbors boarded a white shuttle bus and settled into their seats for the 15-mile journey to the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center near the edge of downtown Detroit. They clutched homemade signs demanding the right to breathe clean air.
Around 10 o’clock, the bus roared its engine and drove away from the community house. Minutes later, the bus ascended the concrete expressway and turned left on the winding overpass. A towering orange column, protruding from the industrial zone below, disrupted the view of the clear blue horizon.
Evan Bitzarakis wore a baseball cap. The community organizer told his neighbors they each had less than a minute to plead their case before the zoning board, who would decide the fate of the community where he was born and raised.
Months before, a Pontiac-based company proposed the establishment of an asphalt mixing plant in an area less than a mile away from homes, churches, and schools. In a pitch to residents, the company, Asphalt Specialists Inc., touted the plant’s creation of up to 50 jobs.
But the company’s plans would be thwarted. A people powered campaign stuffed email inboxes with complaints, rallied the support of politicians and garnered 1,600 signatures through an online petition. Then the city’s building department dealt another blow, denying the company’s initial request to establish the plant in November.
However, the company refused to abandon its efforts and filed an appeal. A hearing before Detroit’s Board of Zoning Appeals was scheduled to reconsider the city’s initial decision.
That hearing, which would see the representatives of the company and the neighbors clash once again, took place the morning the white shuttle bus rolled onto the expressway.
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Aboard the bus, pockets of chatter cut through heavy silences. Solemn and quiet eyes peeked over the masks shielding their faces.
The riders were troubled by a pattern that would not stop repeating—toxic facilities operating near predominantly Black communities like their own, despite the legacy of scientific proof showing the harms their cumulative presences bear.
A half-hour later, the bus dropped off the neighbors just outside the municipal center. The group took a picture together in front of the Spirit of Detroit Plaza, holding the protest signs closely across their hearts.
It would be another defining moment in the history of Detroiters defending their neighborhoods from pollution. It would be another show of organizing force. The fight for clean air is a neighborhood tradition spanning generations. “We’re accustomed,” Bitzarakis said, “to protecting our quality of life.”
After taking the group picture, they entered the municipal center. The neighbors walked through metal detectors, had their purses and bags pass security checks, and completed covid-19 screenings. Then, they filled the elevators, going up a few floors to the Erma L. Henderson Auditorium, where the hearing would commence.
Around 11 o’clock, they exited the elevators and scurried into the auditorium.
This is what bureaucracy looks like.
When the neighbors arrived, the prosaic business of city government was well underway. Earlier that morning, the zoning board had already heard appeals about a recruitment center and a marijuana facility. The final agenda item of the day, the hearing about the asphalt mixing plant, was filed under case number: SLU2021-00158 and scheduled for 11:15 a.m.
Four flags stood behind the zoning board members. The nondescript chamber was a sea of brown walls, desks and stadium-style seats. It was a place where other people powered efforts to protect the neighborhoods from threats, like gentrification, failed.
Whether or not the board would reverse the asphalt plant’s denial attracted the attention of a local TV news camera crew and dozens of city residents. The meeting was simultaneously streamed through Zoom.
All eyes were on the zoning board.
Fifteen minutes later, the final hearing began.
One board member showed pictures, which were projected on the TV screen. Each picture showed the exact boundaries of where the company wanted to establish its asphalt mixing plant, a 25-acre plot of land near I-96 and Southfield Freeway. The area was the former site of a Farmer Jack warehouse and near railroad tracks.
Last year, an inspector from the Building, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department (BSEED) visited the site and discovered the property owner was illegally storing heavy trucks and machinery on the premises without a permit. That’s part of the reason why the department denied the company’s initial request.
After the board member’s presentation, Lawrence Walker, sporting a gray suit and a dark blue bow-tie, walked up to the board members and gave each of them a thick book filled with details about the proposed plant. Walker was the attorney arguing on behalf of the asphalt company. During the hearing, the company was commonly referred to as the petitioner.
Over the next twenty minutes, he explained why his client had a legitimate justification for the appeal.
He told the board members the asphalt plant was necessary to help “fix the damn roads.”
He told them the company’s efforts had been mischaracterized.
“This is an asphalt mixer, not a concrete crusher,” he said. Asphalt companies need to be close to their sites of repair, so the workers, dealing with a hot product, could patch up holes and cracks quickly. There were no other asphalt companies in the city.
The concerns over pollution boggled the attorney’s mind.
This would not be just another asphalt plant reminiscent of those constructed in the 1980s. Times have changed.
“This is more like mixing a cake,” Walker said. The crowd laughed.
Walker then transitioned to the crux of the argument. BSEED failed to conduct a proper investigation of the site. Under the zoning ordinance, they were supposed to fully evaluate the machinery.
“This was not done in the manner it was supposed to,” he said.
Walker’s argument inspired a matter-of-fact rebuttal from Jayda Philson, who joined the meeting remotely. She’s a manager with BSEED’s zoning division. Philson said the company gave them a site plan, which is sufficient for review. They weren’t required to visit the site because no asphalt mixing was happening.
If approved, the plant’s operations could release dangerous hydrocarbons, which can irritate the lungs and increase heart rates. People lived less than 800 feet away from the proposed site, Philson said.
“I find that very disturbing,” Philson said. “We’re standing by our denial.”
Helen Sharpley, a city planner for the planning and development department, also stood by the denial. The city had developed a master plan for future land use, informed by community input. She said the neighbors living near the proposed mixing site didn’t want more heavy truck traffic, more facilities. They wanted significantly less industry—another plant would fail to honor their will.
Walker did not relent.
“You didn’t even look at the machinery!” he told the board members.
“It’s totally irresponsible.” He told them the plant would not emit harmful chemicals.
“It is simply not true.”
Walker then introduced Lillian Woolley, a chemical engineer from Fishbeck, an engineering and environmental consulting firm. She also spoke on behalf of the company.
She spent a few minutes describing the difficult and time-sensitive process of asphalt mixing.
Board member Robert Thomas briefly interrupted Woolley to clarify something key.
“So there are no particulate emissions?” he asked, which Walker asserted a few moments before.
“I wouldn’t say no,” she said.
She estimated there are between 50 and 100 asphalt plants in Michigan. They all had air permits. The asphalt company hadn’t applied for one themselves because they wanted to clear this process first. She assured the board members the plant would have emissions monitoring and comply with air quality standards.
Then it was time for the people to speak. Thomas asked those who supported the plant to step forward.
Three minutes passed. Nobody moved. Nobody said anything in favor of the company.
Now it was the opposition’s turn. Many little yellow hands were raised over Zoom. Well over a dozen people, including the North Rosedale Park coalition of neighbors, hustled to form a line near the podium.
Bitzarakis was slightly off. Each person only had 30 seconds to deliver a testimonial.
The opposition reached a critical mass.
Testimonial after testimonial saw the voices of a retired nurse, a nonprofit director, an ecologist, a former firefighter, and dozens of residents, rising.
“I am asthmatic,” said Deborah Lanier Hall Anderson. “I am not leaving. I don’t see how this wonderful plant would be a blessing to us. Please note that 20 employees is not a blessing to any of us.”
“I am in support of the community in denying this asphalt plant,” said Sandra Turner-Handy. “And unless the petitioner can control the weather and the wind, we know that a typical batch of asphalt contains particulate matter, VOCs, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. And unless they can control the weather, that will go far beyond a thousand feet and even a mile as we have seen with other facilities in our city.”
“Our neighborhood should be a place of peace, serenity, tranquility,” said Aminah Steger, the president of a local business association. “Allowing this asphalt plant in will produce heavy traffic, pollution, respiratory problems.”
“Nothing that was presented would address the 50-foot pile high uncovered aggregate which will stand on that property waiting to be mixed,” said Margaret Weber, who rode the white shuttle bus, and attended previous hearings, helped rally her neighbors together, sent them reminders of each next step of the fight. “We should be insulted by anybody would say to us that this hot mix asphalt is like mixing a cake.”
Bitzarakis had taken off his baseball cap. While riding the bus, he talked about how the already dirty air could get dirtier because of this plant. What would happen to his young son when he played baseball outside? What would happen to his wife, coping with covid-19 complications? What would happen to his mother, who lived with a chronic lung disease?
He walked up to the podium.
“For much too long, suburban companies have intentionally located polluting industries in the city,” he said, sharply. “It is abundantly clear that ASI does not care about the health and well-being of residents of our city. And they’ve consistently misrepresented well-documented and serious environmental and economic consequences of hot mix facilities to the surrounding communities…I humbly ask you…help protect our community.”
More people spoke of protecting their loved ones and the neighborhood they cherished.
Walker still did not relent.
It was a matter of fairness. He claimed there was no evidence for their fears. He stuck to his baking metaphor. The company should be allowed to operate its plant because the area was zoned for such use, just like the existing facilities in the area. Not allowing their work was discrimination. The bad smell shouldn’t be a major concern because they would be getting a better road. Other cities supported the asphalt plant.
“There is no evidence in the record that this particular process is harmful,” he said. “Just because you have the biggest army…you come in here, carry signs and say, ‘we want clean air’…that is no evidence.”
He said these people were making such a loud noise for political reasons, and it was improper to block fair use of the land.
“We have the smaller army, but we have the more important army,” he said. The crowd booed.
After delivering his passionate rebuke, the board members took control of the meeting once again.
The zoning board gazed at the crowd looking back at them.
“I’m excited to see all these signs and all this support for our environment,” said board member Elois Moore. “It’s always good to see how we fight as people who live in the neighborhood, who love the neighborhood and additionally who’ll die in the neighborhood.”
The board members said BSEED did its due diligence and did not make any mistakes. The petitioner’s plant would result in heavy industrial use, which would violate the master plan. And they could only make their decision based on the information given to them during the initial review. The heavy books were rendered useless.
Around 1:30 p.m., the board unanimously voted to uphold the initial finding and deny the appeal. The asphalt company was struck down again.
The vote honoring the will of the people inspired a sputtering of gasps, cheers, and applause. The thought that the community won this fight took Ernestine McFarlin’s breath away. Dressed in her Sunday best, she grinned from ear to ear. She was glad city officials were on their side, because Walker presented his case as if the lives of 6,000 people didn’t matter. A light tear trickled down her cheek.
“I’m overjoyed,” she said.
It had been a long day for the neighbors of North Rosedale Park. They earned another hard-won victory.
“But the fight to keep air in Detroit safe goes on,” Bitzarakis said. He hurried back to the white shuttle bus.
The bus rolled forward, driving along the concrete streetscape, past the constant drone of mid-afternoon traffic, the pedestrians outfitted in suits who didn’t witness the might of people power, and back toward the place they’ll keep fighting to protect.
Detroit documenter @civicDetroitDan contributed to this story. Learn more about the Detroit Documenters Program here.