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Old Posted May 19, 2009, 7:17 PM
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Proposed underground garage for downtown Ann Arbor could violate state pollution laws, environmental law group says

by Judy McGovern | The Ann Arbor News
Friday May 15, 2009, 7:42 AM

A Detroit-based environmental law group has sent the city of Ann Arbor a letter outlining what says is the basis for a lawsuit over the planned underground parking structure on Fifth Avenue.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center makes the case that the planned 677-space parking structure would harm air quality by facilitating more vehicle traffic in downtown Ann Arbor.

Secret discussions?

In addition to raising environmental arguments about the planned underground parking structure on Fifth Avenue, Noah Hall of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center is questioning whether city officials violated the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
Rather than discuss questions about the structure openly, city officials exchanged e-mails during the public meetings at which borrowing for the project was approved.

Hall said he obtained private e-mail messages sent back and forth among half a dozen City Council members during that Feb. 17 meeting, via the Freedom of Information Act.

Round-robin phone conversations or e-mail that lead to a decision are at odds with sunshine laws when they involve a quorum of a given public body.

Hall says he has not filed a formal complaint.

That would violate state law, said Noah Hall, executive director of the law center.
City Attorney Stephen Postema had little to say about matter. "We'll review (it). Council's aware of it. I have no other comment on it."

An Ann Arbor resident, Hall teaches at Wayne State University where the law center is located.

He is married to Jennifer Hall, a former member of the city Planning Commission who now serves as chairwoman of the agency that proposed and would build and operate the parking structure, Ann Arbor's Downtown Development Authority.

Jennifer Hall was the only DDA member who voted against the structure, planned for the surface parking lot next to the Ann Arbor District Library. She also serves on the city's Greenbelt Commission.

Noah Hall sent his letter Thursday to the city officials on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the national Sierra Club and the Germantown Neighborhood Association - a new group in the near-downtown area south of William Street - and several individual city residents.

City officials had seen earlier drafts, said Hall, who says he had met with Postema, Mayor John Hieftje and others to review the concerns. The goal of the meetings, and Thursday's letter, was to see whether the matter could be resolved outside a courtroom, he said.

The emissions question revolves around whether the planned parking structure would actually increase the number of cars coming downtown. The Michigan Environmental Protection Act prohibits activity that is likely to pollute unless there is no alternative, Hall said.

If commuters are already coming in and parking in neighborhoods or elsewhere and there's would be no net gain, there's no harm.

However, that's not clear, said Hall. And research should be done.

If the new parking structure would ultimately replace other parking - such as some of what's now provided in surface lots - that would change the picture, too, he said.

But that fact that revenue from parking is to pay off the $38 million cost of the new structure creates some doubt about scaling back, Hall said. And there's no formal consensus much less a binding commitment.

There are a lot of unknowns, Hall said.

"Is it needed and can the need be met other ways? Is it going to create more CO2 and burn more energy or no? Maybe it's not, but I'd would like to see a real study."

Hieftje said he believed the city would be more than ready to defend itself. The mayor said he did worry that any litigation could delay what city officials think is a good time to do construction.

"We're really just replacing parking spaces that we've lost or could lose down the road," he said.

Jennifer Hall said Thursday the dispute is between her husband's clients and the City Council, and she doesn't foresee any conflicts.

There's no precedent for an environmental assessment of adding parking in Ann Arbor. Several structures have been rebuilt or expanded in recent years and several surface lots - officially temporary - have been added to the city's inventory.

The planned underground structure on Fifth Avenue did generate some debate because of its scale. City Council members trimmed it by 100 spaces when they approved borrowing for the project in February.

Judy McGovern can be reached at 734-994-6863 or
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