City backs down on plan to close off canals in Jefferson Chalmers; fines and litigation may be next

Residents in Jefferson Chalmers are breathing a partial sigh of relief after a packed town hall sent city officials a clear message: No dams on the canals. 

City officials took note, confirming that the plan to close canals is now off the table.

“The consensus of the attendees is that they (“the community”) are against any canal closures,” Tyrone Clifton, director of the Detroit Building Authority Board, told Planet Detroit. 

Clifton noted that the city would move forward by immediately repairing its 17 city-owned seawalls and developing a seawall enforcement plan. He warned that the city would get serious about fines and litigation against private property owners who neglect their seawalls.

Residents packed Hope Community Church on Jefferson Tuesday evening as Clifton presented two options for solving one of the neighborhood’s flooding challenges — water from the Detroit River that overtops canal banks and runs into the district during high water level years. He did not discuss basement sewage backups.

Jefferson Chalmers residents packed Hope Community Church on Jefferson Tuesday evening. They were unanimous in speaking out against a city plan to close canals to stop flooding from the Detroit River. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.

Detroit river water flooded the neighborhood in the spring of 2020, prompting the Federal Emergency Management Administration to redraw its flood rate insurance map for the area. A new map adopted in October 2021 places 96% of neighborhood parcels —  3,619 in total — in a Special Flood Hazard Area, requiring homeowners with a mortgage to purchase expensive flood insurance. 

The designation also threatens redevelopment efforts that depend on federal funds and incentives. Changing the FEMA map will require the construction of a continuous barrier above the base flood elevation of 578 feet above sea level.

The canal closure option would have placed permanent barriers at Fox Creek and Philip canal outlets and a stop-log dam on the Lakewood canal. This removable dam could block water when Detroit River water levels are high but could be lowered the rest of the time, allowing river access. 

Clifton’s statement that city staff would manage the dam was met by an uproar of laughter from the audience. 

The dam option would present a permanent solution to flooding from the Detroit River at no cost to residents, Clifton said, and allow FEMA to eliminate the requirement for residents to buy flood insurance.

Residents lined up to speak at the microphone back to the church’s vestibule to respond.

Resident Andy Didorosi, with other residents, has formed a Save the Canals advocacy group., “If we close these canals, we will destroy local businesses. We’re destroying our environment. We’ll have a cesspool full of mosquitoes,” he said. “We’re going to destroy access that we have by right as navigable waters and destroy our property values.”

Residents line up to comment on city proposals for flood mitigation in Jefferson Chalmers. Photo by Nina Ignaczak.

Klenk Island resident Peter Green threatened litigation if the city pursued the plan. “We want to work with the city to realize the written objective in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood redevelopment plan, and I quote, ‘to develop waterfront areas and inland canals to their fullest potential for both neighborhood and city-wide usage.'”

The other option presented by Clifton would be to enforce the city ordinance requiring all 366 property owners on the canals to build and maintain watertight sea walls. City inspectors estimate that 43% of all property owners on the water have deficient seawalls. Clifton noted the city owns 17 parcels with inadequate seawalls in the neighborhood.

“Everyone bordering the canals must maintain their seawall in a watertight manner, or 3,619 parcels in the Lower East Side are subject to flooding,” Clifton said. “Getting 70% or 80% compliant does not help us —it needs to be continuous. The water will find its way through.” 

The city has had little success with this approach so far. In 2021, the Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department conducted a test, issuing 24 citations requiring property owners to repair the seawall or face fines, as a demonstration project. Only three have brought their seawalls into compliance, Clifton said.

“BSEED concluded nothing short of full litigation with a large number of owners would have any effect,” Clifton said.

FEMA flood zone map adopted in October 2021. Areas shown in blue are designated a Special Flood Hazard Area and must obtain flood insurance of they have a mortgage. Source: FEMA.

Clifton also noted that FEMA would not recognize seawall maintenance as an effective strategy, meaning residents would remain in a designated floodplain and still face flood insurance costs.

Planet Detroit reached out to FEMA to ask whether seawall maintenance could lift the neighborhood out of the flood zone map. FEMA guidance states that many seawalls may be recognized under certain conditions.

In an email, a FEMA spokesperson said that “A properly designed seawall and levee/floodwall system that includes analysis of landside interior drainage with mitigation measures (interior drainage and pumping) intended to reduce flooding for a range of flooding events is able to reduce flood risk and can be accredited by FEMA if a certifying engineer provides all necessary data and analyses as required by federal regulation.”

Crystal Gilbert Rogers, general manager for environmental enforcement for BSEED, noted that the guidance contains stringent maintenance criteria that would necessitate oversight, noting that the guidance states that “All maintenance activities must be under the jurisdiction of a federal or state agency, an agency created by federal or state law, or any agency of a community participating…that must assume ultimate responsibility for maintenance.”

Example of a seawall in bad condition on Fox Creek. Source: City of Detroit.

As for what’s next, resident Tim Edwards called on the city to help residents by coordinating a contractor, possibly securing a discounted rate. 

In response, Clifton noted that the responsibility ultimately falls on the residents. “It is private property,” he said. “There’s no reason the community could not come together and hire a contractor. We could guide with that, but we could not be responsible for that. Again, it’s private. The work on your property is the residents’ responsibility.”

Seawall construction can range between $10,000 – $50,000 per home, and some residents are likely unable to bear the cost alone in a neighborhood with a median income of $29,750.  Some residents expressed concern that fines and litigation could drive out low-income residents, causing what’s known as “climate gentrification.”

FEMA offers funding support for flood mitigation, and Michigan law permits municipalities to form special assessment districts to levy taxes on residents to pay for specific projects and services. 

Midland and Gladwin county officials approved a SAD to pay for repairs following the Edenville dam failure in July. And in 2018, the City of Petoskey considered a SAD to pay for drainage efforts to remove a FEMA floodplain designation.

“We will need to work together to find a durable, affordable solution to keeping the Great Lakes out of our backyards and homes, Didorosi wrote in a “victory” email to residents. “We can do this if we put our minds to it.”

The Detroit Water & Sewer Department will hold a separate meeting to discuss basement backups in Jefferson Chalmers as part of its disaster recovery plan related to $57.6 million in Housing and Urban Development Funding on Nov. 3.  Residents who cannot attend are encouraged to review the plan online and share their feedback via email.

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