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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Residents concerned over City of Houghton proposed re-zoning along Canal Road; wetland, Cole's Creek to remain protected in R-1 zoning

By Michele Bourdieu
This photo illustrates the potential location of a large hotel that could be built on the Portage Canal along Canal Road in Houghton, should the present residential (R-1) zoning be changed to business (B-2) zoning, according to a rezoning proposal being considered by the City of Houghton. Such a construction project would be allowed by B-2 zoning, assuming all EPA requirements were followed since the area is on part of the Torch Lake Superfund site, next to the home of John and Bonnie Fodermaier, at right. (Photo taken from Hancock side of Canal © and courtesy John Fodermaier)

HOUGHTON -- Concerned local residents have recently raised objections to a proposed rezoning -- from single-family residential (R-1) to community business (B-2) -- of an area under the Torch Lake Superfund bordering on the Portage Canal and Canal Road in Houghton.

Proposed Ordinance 2020-314 to rezone this area was added to proposed Ordinance 2020-315 to rezone another parcel on Canal Road, near the UPPCO building, for the Isle Royale Seaplane Service. Residents have concerns about potential development on a Superfund site and about noise pollution from the plane, which now takes off from a site on Dollar Bay. The two proposals are being considered together.

New agreement protects wetland, Cole's Creek from rezoning

Before last Friday, Dec. 11, the proposed Ordinance 314 also included rezoning a wetland and area along Cole's Creek, a well known trout stream, near Canal Road. However, a Dec. 11 agreement between local resident John Fodermaier -- whose property is next to the wetland on the west and a potential development east of his home -- and owners of the adjacent properties, JRG Development and the Jukuri family, removes the wetland and Cole's Creek area, presently zoned R-1, from the rezoning proposal.

This panorama shows the wetland bordering John Fodermaier's property on the west side. It was certified as wetland under the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), formerly DEQ. (Photo © and courtesy John Fodermaier)
Fodermaier said he was pleased with the removal of the wetlands and Cole's Creek from the proposed Ordinance 314.
"I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of this," Fodermaier said. "In the light of the fact that JRG excluded the wetlands -- including Cole's Creek -- from their rezoning request and added deed restrictions for the development, I have removed my opposition to proposed Ordinance 314," Fodermaier said this week. "I applaud JRG for listening to the concerns of the community on this important issue."
Here a part of the wetland borders the Portage Canal on the west side of John Fodermaier's property. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)
Bill Deephouse, former fisheries biologist, was also happy to hear about the recent agreement between Fodermaier and the Jukuris.
On Dec. 14, Deephouse told Keweenaw Now, "I'm pleased that there won't be a zoning change for the wetlands and Cole's Creek."
During the Dec. 2 Houghton City Council meeting, Deephouse had commented on the value of the creek as a trout stream.

"I think the proposal to rezone the area from the possible seaplane base near Old Mill Road down the shoreline to Cole's Creek is irresponsible," Deephouse told Keweenaw Now after that Dec. 2 meeting. "Cole's Creek was found to be an excellent stream with good numbers of rainbow trout, coho salmon, brook trout and a few brown trout. As I recall, we estimated that there were 4 year-classes of rainbows in one survey with good numbers of young-of-the-year brook trout. This stream is a natural hatchery and very valuable. The insect population and species composition indicates it is a stream of the highest order."

This photo, taken in May 2018, just before the Father's Day flood, shows Bill Deephouse smelt dipping at 7:30 in the morning on Cole's Creek. "Smelt dipping is usually done at night, often in the middle of the night -- at 2 or 3 in the morning," Deephouse said. "But they were running really heavy and stayed in the creek all night and I was there to catch some in the daytime." (Photo  Marcia Goodrich and courtesy Bill Deephouse)

Deephouse participated in surveys of Cole's Creek in the past to determine its quality as a Type 1 trout stream. However, since the 2018 flood, the creek has suffered damage to its fishery.

"I would have to resurvey the stream again to determine if it still contained the previous numbers and species of fish as found in the past," Deephouse said. "It sustained significant habitat damage and might take some time to return to its former status."

New public hearings to be scheduled for 314, 315

During the Nov. 17, 2020, meeting of the Houghton Planning Commission, following two public hearings to discuss proposed zoning ordinances 2020-314 and 2020-315, the Commission voted to recommend both ordinances to the Houghton City Council. At that time the wetland and Cole's Creek were still included in the 314 rezoning proposal.

Eric Waara, Houghton City Manager, told Keweenaw Now Tuesday, Dec. 15, that the public hearings on the proposed Ordinances 314 and 315 -- originally scheduled for Jan. 13, 2021 -- will now have to be re-scheduled because of the recent agreement to exclude the wetland and Cole's Creek from 314.

This map shows the area of the wetland and Cole's Creek (purple) that has been removed from the original proposed Ordinance 314 so that it may remain in R-1 (residential zoning). The yellow area is proposed to be rezoned from R-1 to B-2 (community business). Click on image for larger version. (Map courtesy City of Houghton)

"We may have a special Planning Commission meeting in early January to set the public hearing date -- and no more, no less (on the agenda)," Waara said. "That way we can public notice the hearings correctly." 

While that special meeting would have a limited agenda, the public is always welcome to make public comments on any issue during any meetings, he explained. Waara noted he wanted to make clear the distinction between a rezoning request and a proposal for a project. In other words, while a B-2 zoning allows certain types of development, it is not a permission to build something that may require specific permits or restrictions.

"There is a difference between a rezoning request and someone's proposal to do a project, and right now no one has proposed to do a project," Waara said. "This is a single rezoning request. That's all it is."

While the seaplane request was a separate rezoning request last year (It was a proposal to rezone from R-1 to Industrial, but failed), it is connected to the 314 request now; and both are requests to rezone to B-2.

"I'm assuming the owner of the Isle Royale Seaplane Service worked with his neighbors to come up with a mutually agreable and complementary rezoning request," Waara said.

Since the seaplane will be on federal waters, it will be subject to rules, regulations and permitting -- none of which have anything to do with the zoning there, he added.

Residents concerned about potential development to follow rezoning

Before the recent change in the proposed Ordinance 314, John Fodermaier had spoken at City of Houghton Planning Commission and City Council meetings on potential development that the B-2 zoning could allow near his house on Canal Road.

This photo shows John Fodermaier's house at far left and vegetable garden (needing sunshine) toward the center. The Portage Canal is in the background. Lines are drawn to show where a large hotel could be built near his property line if the area is rezoned. (Photo © and courtesy John Fodermaier)

During the Nov. 17 Planning Commission public hearing on proposed Ordinance 314, Fodermaier noted the property being proposed for rezoning included both a protected wetland and a Superfund site. He said he believed the uses that rezoning to B-2 would allow would be prohibited because of the protected status of the area. He also told the Commission that one cannot dig down more than 12 inches on his property without hitting water.*

During the Dec. 2, 2020, City Council meeting, Fodermaier spoke about his concerns that his property could be surrounded by a large hotel of an unspecified number of storeys, a parking lot, and other related businesses in what was intended to be a residential neighborhood when he and his wife, Bonnie, both graduates of Michigan Tech, moved to Houghton for retirement.

"This is an environmentally sensitive area that is also surrounded by R-1 and has existing R-1 single-family homes inside of it," Fodermaier told the Council on Dec. 2, noting this would probably be a bigger development than just a "mom and pop" 15-unit motel. "Think about a 10-storey Hyatt Regency, Marriott or Sheraton -- complete with a restaurant, bar and a 200-car parking lot. Think not about seasonal operation but an operation that's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 12 months of the year with boisterous restaurant patrons exiting at midnight or 2 a.m. on the weekends. Think about 300 to 400 more vehicles per day on Canal Road. Think about the excavation required for this type of structure in the hazardous material of the Superfund site. Think about potential encroachment on protected wetlands and Cole's Creek and think about the effect this could have on a Type 1 trout stream at Cole's Creek."

Zoning changes for Ordinances 314 and 315 were proposed at the Oct. 27, 2020, Planning Commission meeting. According to the minutes, "City Manager Waara presented a map of the parcel owned by JRG Development and the Jukuri family along with the area owned by Isle Royale Air on Houghton Canal Road. The owner of the JRG Development/Jukuri property is asking for a conditional rezoning from R1 to B-2 with conditions. The conditions are everything up to B-2 plus hotels, motels, and restaurants and taverns.

"The owner of the Isle Royale Air property is requesting rezoning from R-1 to Industrial with conditions to run a seaplane business."**

Since that meeting the seaplane business is being proposed for a zoning change to B-2 (see above).

Local residents on both sides of the canal are concerned about noise from the seaplane and about its potential impact on water activities on the Portage Canal.

This map and overlay shows potential impacts should proposed Ordinance 315 be adopted to allow the Isle Royale Seaplane Service to operate on the Portage Canal as illustrated. The overlay shows the projected float plane activity area, its proximity to established residential areas and existing recreational silent sports on the canal, which includes part of the Keweenaw Water Trail. (Map courtesy Jennifer Norkol)

Hancock residents Jennifer and John Norkol are among those expressing concerns about the Seaplane business during public comment periods at recent City of Houghton meetings.

"We oppose the proposed zoning changes in Ordinances 314 and 315 from R-1 to B-2," the Norkols told Keweenaw Now in an email Dec. 15. "We and our surrounding community use this waterway for fishing, kayaking, swimming and boating. We live on the lake directly across from this site at 1404 Jasberg Street in Hancock. The noise, increased marine traffic and congestion these planes would cause is of grave concern to us. The Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) defines Seaplane businesses as Airports. We strongly object to the introduction of an Airport in what is currently a residential and recreational area. The City of Houghton planning commission was, in part, to consider if the land use will not be detrimental to the neighborhood or public health and welfare. We believe the Seaplane business relocating to this area to be a detriment on many levels -- to the peace of neighborhood and waterway, lower property value due to increased noise and nuisance, and safety issues with common fishing, boating, (tubing, waterskiing, swimming) and kayaking. These changes now include commercial construction on the adjoining parcel, further impacting the environment.

"We appreciate that the City of Houghton is not under any obligation to act on our behalf as residents of the City of Hancock, specifically the lakefront homes directly across from the proposed site; but as part of a larger community that will be impacted by these proposed changes, we sincerely hope that they will." 

This map of the proposed location for the Isle Royale Seaplane Service shows the area to be changed from R-1 to B-2 zoning if Ordinance 315 is adopted. (Map courtesy City of Houghton) 

The Norkols added their concern about potential pollution from development on the 314 parcel, but for them the Seaplane business poses a greater potential impact on their property value and peace.

Ordinance 314 parcel under Superfund regulations

The proposed Ordinance 314 parcel includes part of the Torch Lake Superfund site. It contains mining waste from the former Michigan Smelter, which operated from the early 1900s to 1948.

This aerial view shows the area of the Michigan Smelter site under the Torch Lake Superfund. The light grey, striped area marks the covered tailings. This area appears to include the area proposed for rezoning to B-2 under Ordinance 314. (Screenshot from EPA Fact Sheet, August 2012)

The mining waste (contaminated tailings) at the various Torch Lake Superfund sites received a soil and vegetative cover to prevent inhalation or contact with contaminants and to reduce erosion of these contaminants into the lake. A 1992 Record of Decision from EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) required deed restrictions to ensure that mine tailings and/or slag material are ultimately re-vegetated after any activity which disturbs the soil cover. Any construction on this site would have this requirement to prevent heavy metals and other contaminants still in the slag from escaping into the air and water. If disturbance occurs, the owner must replace the soil and repair the vegetative cover.***

John Slivon, a concerned Hancock resident, commented on the potential for dangerous air pollution should construction in the area of the proposed Ordinance 314 disturb the Superfund cover.

"The Houghton Superfund site where the construction of a hotel is being planned is, in my opinion, a misguided idea," Slivon told Keweenaw Now. "The Superfund site requires being covered to keep the dangerous material at that site from polluting the air downwind of the site. Construction at that site will result in removing the protective cap and the creation of enormous quantities of contaminated dust blowing into downtown Hancock and Houghton.

"The residential areas of both cities are a scant half mile from the proposed (314) site and directly downwind in the summer, when construction will take place. These downwind areas can't avoid being contaminated by that dust, and the contamination will become a permanent feature in and on the soil of those areas downwind of the construction site. The contaminated dust will almost certainly blow onto the Chutes and Ladders playground. Is the City of Houghton unaware of the dangers that it wishes to inflict on the health of the residents and visitors of Hancock and Houghton?

"While it may seem as if I am over-reacting to this potential opening of the Superfund cap, everyone should be aware that air pollution caused lung disease is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. We have done a very good job of cleaning up the air in this area by capping those sites that were most contaminated, thus making it a safer place to live. Why ruin all that progress? We should at least know what's in that contaminated soil before blowing it across our cities. If that soil is at all toxic, then this hotel-on-a-Superfund-site-idea should be abandoned."

According to EPA, the remediation of the Michigan Smelter area was completed in 2003. Although it was deleted from the National Priorities List, this area has not been delisted from Superfund. Landowners must be responsible in protecting the soil and vegetative cover. EPA Region 5 in Chicago partners with EGLE (Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) in conducting Superfund site visits and in reporting on the  status of remediation every five years.***


* See Minutes for Nov. 17, 2020, Houghton Planning Commission.

** See Minutes for Oct. 27, 2020, Houghton Planning Commission.

*** See the EPA's Fourth Five-Year Report for the Torch Lake Superfund Site, Houghton County, Michigan.

Editor's Note: Keweenaw Now attempted to contact EGLE staff and EPA for more details on the contaminants under the Superfund cover in the 314 area. EPA replied they would communicate on this at a later date. EGLE staff did not yet answer calls. Watch for a follow-up story on this issue.