Tree removal spurs cries of developer favoritism in Taylor

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Taylor — Douglas Maniex says his yard is a swampy breeding ground for mosquitoes and moles, thanks to a developer razing dozens of trees and stripping topsoil in an adjacent parcel three years ago.

"When it rains, our back yard gets flooded out due to the water runoff from the project behind our house," Maniex told the Taylor officials at a recent City Council meeting. "Because of the mosquito infestation, I now have to contract (an exterminator) each spring.

Taylor resident Douglas Maniex, 73, walks through his flooded property.

"Infestation of moles on my property makes my back, side and front yard look like a series of varicose veins," said Maniex, who added his problems are exacerbated by a 4- to 6-foot high embankment of debris that was piled up on the adjacent land, which he says increases the water runoff onto his property.

Maniex is among the critics who accuse city officials of allowing Dearborn Heights developer Joe Persiconi, owner of Persiconi Construction, to illegally cut down trees and set up parking lots on Brest Road, Holland Road, Inkster Road and Wick Road without pulling proper permits. 

City officials insist Persiconi hasn't been given special treatment, and that the proper permits were obtained.

Persiconi did not return phone calls from The Detroit News seeking comment.

Questions sent to Mayor Rick Sollars about the controversy were answered in a written statement, which said the criticism stems from inaccurate claims by resident Cathy Carroll, who has complained at multiple City Council meetings about how the city has handled Persiconi's properties.

"Mrs. Carroll makes many misleading allegations," the city's response said. "She appears to be targeting one person, a single developer. It appears that she, and others in her group, are running some type of campaign against this developer. The City does not participate in crusades or vendettas against anyone."

Carroll insisted her criticism isn't personal. 

"I don’t have a vendetta against anyone," said Carroll, who owns an excavation company with her husband. "I just want the city to treat everyone equally. There are many contractors who want to work in this city, and if they're not all treated the same, that's not fair. I just want the people in the city to do their jobs."

Carroll and others say Persiconi did not provide site plans before developing the properties and tearing down thousands of trees. When The News asked for site plans for Persiconi's properties, city officials said in their written response that plans are not required.

However, Section 19.01 of Taylor's Zoning Ordinance states: “Site plan review is required to provide the planning commission with the opportunity to review the proposed use of a site in relation to surrounding uses, planned future development, accessibility … general drainage, environmental characteristics and other site elements.”

"If they're telling you no site plans are required, that's a lie," City Councilman Herman "Butch" Ramik said. "How can you just start developing a property without the city knowing what you're going to do with that property?"

Councilman Charlie Johnson said there have been problems on Persiconi's properties, but said they aren't as severe as some critics claim.

"There are a lot of rumors and speculation," Johnson said. “I've expressed concern to the administration that there was debris on Persiconi's property that should be cleaned up, but I think some people are making this out to be bigger than it really is."

Ramik said the problems aren't being overstated.

Persiconi Construction submitted an application to remove 12 trees from a site on Holland Road. However, photos taken before and after development of the site show acres of trees were removed

"There's been a total failure of this city to maintain and do things properly per our ordinances," Ramik said. "Persiconi didn't pull the right permits to tear trees down, the City Council is fully aware of it, and everyone sits on their hands."

Taylor's city ordinance requires developers to obtain permits to chop down trees with diameters at breast height (4.5 feet from the ground) of 6 inches or more. "The removal, damage or destruction of any landmark tree located within a forest without first obtaining a tree permit is prohibited," the ordinance says.

Ramik said Persiconi didn't pull tree permits for some properties, or with other developments, Persiconi under-counted the number of trees he planned to tear down.

Ramik provided a tree permit applications submitted by Persiconi in 2018, in which he said he planned to raze 12 trees on a tract of land on Holland Road. 

A pair of aerial photos Carroll said she had taken with a drone before and after the development show several acres of trees were removed.

"Look at that property," Ramik said. "There were a lot more than 12 trees cut down."

Photos taken by a drone show a parking lot on Holland Road in Taylor in 2018, left, before a developer razed acres of trees, and in 2019, after the site was converted into a parking lot. Residents and a city councilman accuse other city officials of allowing Persiconi Construction to improperly tear down the trees and avoid paying fees.

Johnson said there have been numerous violations on some of Persiconi's properties.

"Since 2017, they’ve had 43 violations or touches," Johnson said. "Touches means someone talked to them about the issues, and violations go to court.  A few years ago, there was a ton of debris on the property. A lot of it has been cleaned up, but there's still a lot that needs to be cleaned up.

"I think the administration is trying to handle this the right way, but you can't control everyone," Johnson said. 

During a contentious Jan. 21 City Council meeting, Carroll, who said she has sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the city seeking information about Persiconi's developments, accused Sollars of ignoring the violations.

"Mr. Mayor, I have five violations that I've sent to your administration since Jan. 2 ... none of them have been answered," said Carroll, who said the city did not provide her with a site plan for 30 acres Persiconi developed on Brest Road — the property near Maniex's house.

"Mr. Maniex's property ... there is a huge violation over there," Carroll told Sollars. She then cited the city code, which states "finished grades shall be no higher than two feet to the highest point of elevation of adjacent property."

Taylor resident Cathy Carroll addressed the City Council during a meeting on Jan. 21, 2020

"You know what that means?" Carroll asked the mayor. "(Persiconi) has a 4-foot parking lot back there flooding (Maniex) out. So I think this is an issue that has to be taken care of very quickly.

"I want it shut down," Carroll said, prompting applause from the audience. "Your administration is fractured terribly. Nothing gets done."

Sollars did not reply to Carroll's allegations at the meeting.

During the meeting, Ramik asked planning director Laura Feil how many trees Persiconi had removed on a 30-acre site on Inkster Road.

"I have no idea," Feil said. "There was a lot of tree-cutting without permits ... there have never been any plans submitted. There were preliminary discussions, but no formal plans."

However, Feil added Persiconi had gotten permits to tear down trees on his property.

The city, in its written response to questions from The News, insisted Persiconi isn't being granted special favors by Sollars, who has been indicted in federal court in an alleged bribery scheme involving another developer.

"Everyone who monitored these locations for the City said that the mayor has had nothing to do with them," the statement said.

Gerald Hasspacher, co-chair of the Southeast Michigan Group of the Sierra Club, said communities across the state are losing trees to development.

"It’s happening in every city, and people are watching the trees in their communities go down," he said. "The problem is clear-cutting; if you have 50 acres of a development, they come in and cut down every tree.

"Cities ordinances should say developers can only cut down the minimal required trees for a project," Hasspacher said. "You don't have to cut down every tree to put a house up. Unfortunately, cities are in tune with the developers."