Detroit council to discuss new community benefits law

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — City voters may see dueling initiatives on the November ballot that would lock in community benefits as part of large-scale development projects.

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson said he’s crafted a “compromise” to the controversial proposal that’s been debated for years. Such an agreement would require developers with major investments or those seeking certain tax subsidies to hammer out legally binding community benefits.

The deals, often negotiated by developers and either the city or neighboring community groups, address a issues including job opportunities, traffic, environmental concerns and other spinoff development.

Benson filed the draft Community Benefits Ordinance on Thursday with the city’s clerk and law department. He expects the City Council will take it up during its Tuesday session. Benson said he plans to recommend members vote to have the measure added to the ballot alongside a community-led initiative with different terms.

Both ordinances seek to lock in guarantees and other protections for communities where major development is planned. But the ordinances differ on enforcement, levels of investment and city involvement.

Benson said he’s worked with a team of stakeholders for a year and a half on the enhanced version of the community benefits ordinance with support from Council President Brenda Jones, who spearheaded the effort several years ago.

He contends the new draft strengthens community voices.

“It puts in place stronger processes and gives more of a robust and powerful voice for the community negotiating with developers and ensuring protections and benefits for our neighborhoods,” he said.

Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who aided in the community-led effort by Rise Together Detroit, counters the councilman’s plan undermines the community.

Most significantly, the proposal strips the community of its ability to have a legally enforceable agreement with the developers, leaving that power with the city.

“A real community benefits agreement is one where the community has legal standing to hold the agreement in a court of law,” she said.

The community-led plan mirrors a draft previously introduced by Jones. Her chief of staff, Stephen Grady, said Jones set out to craft an ordinance that would guarantee the community a voice.

“We are very disappointed that Councilman Benson chose to circumvent the efforts of the council president and the community who drafted their own ordinance in favor of an ordinance that’s very favorable to the administration’s position of having an ordinance that is not driven by the people,” Grady said.

Benson’s proposal would come into play for Tier 1 Projects with an investment of $75 million or more during construction, or projects to expand or renovate structures where the developer is seeking city-owned land or tax breaks of $1 million or more.

The neighborhood coalition wants agreements for Tier 1 development projects with a public and/or private investment of more than $15 million during construction, and for projects seeking a tax break from the city of $300,000 or more.

The city has negotiated 12 major deals with enforceable, contractual community benefits agreements since 2014, according to documents on the city’s website. Those investments range from $15 million to 75 million.

Under Benson’s plan, a Neighborhood Advisory Council of residents would be set up for areas affected by development with appointments from the city’s planning director and in consultation with the council.

But developers would not be required to enter into legally binding agreements with the neighborhood advisory groups, other than the city to fulfill the requirements of the ordinance.

In contrast, the community-led plan would bar the council and other city officials from having direct involvement in selecting community representatives. It also empowers residents to pursue legal action on their own if deals aren’t upheld.

Charlie Beckham, group executive for the Department of Neighborhoods, said the administration backs Benson’s plan.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Melvin Butch Hollowell has said if two separate initiatives on community benefits make the ballot, and if voters approve both, the one with the highest number of votes would prevail.

If the council votes to place Benson’s proposed ordinance on the ballot as a voter initiative, it must be certified by the City Clerk 84 days prior to the Nov. 8 general election, he said.