Column: A state-made wetland problem
Al Taylor owns and operates Hart Enterprises Inc., a Sparta, Michigan-based manufacturer of medical equipment that employees about 100 people. Taylor wants to live the American dream, and he wants to do it in Michigan. But Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality had other ideas.
Taylor never wanted to head up a legal crusade against oppressive and arbitrary government regulation. He just wanted to run his business, and where possible, expand it, meaning more sales and more employees. Just like most business people. In 2006, the company outgrew its employee parking lot, and started preparing for a bigger lot. But as construction got underway, a state employee called to inform them that they were filling in a wetland.
Taylor thought that odd, because for most of the year, this land was dry and hard packed. Previously farmland, it had been rezoned for industrial use and development. In the early 1990s, the topsoil had been stripped off and replaced with compacted clay to provide a solid base for construction. Land immediately adjacent to the Hart property had also been developed with a state highway and a gas pipeline.
So, Hart brought in a former employee of the Department of Natural Resources who was a water quality specialist and one of the first people hired to enforce Michigan’s wetlands statute. This expert raised serious questions about the DEQ’s claims, arguing that retained water on the area was due to spring snowmelt. His view was echoed by other experts from the original construction firm and the municipality. Even earlier DEQ reviews of the site gave support.
Undaunted, state officials informed Taylor that previous surveys and comments from experts outside the environment department don’t matter. If the area takes on qualities of a wetland, even for a short period of time, in the DEQ’s opinion, it becomes a wetland. Apparently, nobody who works outside their department is capable of determining whether an area is a wetland. Based on an arbitrary standard — “a lot of it is a judgment call” — the state dragged Taylor and Hart Enterprises into court over a bit of spring snow melt that had puddled on a 0.95-acre speck of heavily developed industrial land. The legal battle that followed took eight years, costing Hart Enterprises and its owner over $500,000 in legal fees. It’s safe to assume the state’s legal costs—meaning cost to taxpayers—would have been similar. Taylor was found guilty of two misdemeanor criminal infractions.
That story should be enough to offend the average person. But recently, the DEQ told Taylor the “wetland” area at the center of the protracted battle had shrunk from 0.95 acres — roughly the size of three city lots — to 1,300 square feet — an area about the size of a large apartment.
Frustrating? Indeed. In a phone call, Taylor questioned the value of the entire dispute to the people of Michigan. There was no clear benefit to the environment or to wetlands. If anything, the confusing and arbitrary manner in which the state carries out wetland reviews and enforcement actually makes wetlands management far less effective. There was certainly no benefit to the people of Sparta and the greater Grand Rapids area. As Taylor noted, the problem appears to have both figuratively and literally evaporated. As it evaporated, it took with it dollars and time that could have been used to improve the lives of people relying on Hart Enterprises. Arbitrary and expensive harassment of Michigan businesses by government agencies does nothing to improve the environment, and actually makes the entire state poorer.
Jason Hayes is the director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.