New ‘forward-thinking’ zoning for McLouth site satisfies residents

Paula Neuman

Trenton city officials took action after being blasted by hundreds of Downriver residents, and have created and approved a new Waterfront Revitalization (W-R) category for the former McLouth Steel property.

The W-R category — called “cutting edge” by planning consultant Leah DuMouchelle — is being applauded by those who raised their voices in July against an earlier attempt to rezone the property.

“The revised zoning ordinance makes it certain for the public record that the leaders of Trenton do not believe that industrial redevelopment on the waterfront is the key to the future prosperity of their city or the region,” posted the Grosse Ile Civic Association led by William Heil.

Legislators added their approval.

“I applaud Mayor (Steven) Rzeppa and Trenton City Council for working together and accommodating the concerns of community members,” posted U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn). “This revised zoning plan works to protect our environment, the health of our community, and future possibilities on the waterfront.”

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) called the Dec. 7 Trenton council meeting via Zoom to commend city officials and activist residents for their work on the W-R category.

“I think that this is really amazing,” Chang said. “You will be really moving Trenton forward to a brighter future.”

State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Twp.) also called the council meeting.

“I am very excited to support what I’ve seen of this new revision,” he said, adding thanks to city officials for “their hard work of listening to residents.”

The land causing all the uproar and angst is 197 acres adjoining Riverview and directly across the Trenton Channel from Grosse Ile. The former steel plant site has been sitting bleak, dilapidated and unused for decades.

Moroun family-owned Crown Enterprises and MSC Land Co. LLC bought the land for $4 million in 2017, after Wayne County foreclosed on the site, which now is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List comprising some of the nation’s most contaminated areas.

After the cleanup work, the Moroun companies allegedly plan an intermodal shipping facility for the site, which offers a deep-water port.

Last summer, an Industrial Waterfront (I-W) category was created by Trenton planners for the property. The I-W category was designed to put some restraints on development while not making it impossible to create an intermodal shipping port there. 

Making the development impossible would constitute a legal “taking” – the seizure of private property or putting a substantial impact onto its owner’s right to free use — and subject the town’s taxpayers to expensive litigation.

Opposition to the I-W category was vehement.

The newly created W-R district that replaces I-W doesn’t prevent the development of an intermodal shipping port either, but may help “mitigate the worst possible impacts” of it, wrote the GICA.

Rzeppa said the W-R zoning creates a mixed use district for commercial and industrial uses “designed to support a transition away from the heaviest industrial uses along the city’s waterfront and permit a combination of uses which support an emerging economy more focused on innovation and connection than on extraction and fabrication.”

The W-R district has been structured to “preserve and protect the waterfront and natural resources while allowing appropriate and suitable development,” the mayor said.

Commercial uses allowed in W-R zoned property include dining, retail and offices. The new ordinance also affords the city’s Planning Commission “greater control of site design for the industrial uses,” Rzeppa said, and requires review and impact assessment for many types of development including industrial.

“The purpose of an impact assessment is to evaluate the developmental, ecological, environmental, social, economic and physical impact from a proposed development on and surrounding the development area,” the ordinance states.

Will the Moroun companies legally challenge any restrictive new regulations to their property?

Time will tell, but many believe that’s entirely possible based on past performance.

In the early 2000s, Crown Enterprises acquired 76 Riverview acres that adjoin the McLouth land, and then created a subsidiary company to own the property called the Riverview Trenton Railroad Co. and announced a plan to build an intermodal transport facility there. The cities of Riverview and Trenton as well as Wayne County, concerned about potential environmental and community impacts, took that plan to court. After years of litigation, the county and cities lost, but the site is still undeveloped.

Whatever eventually happens to the former McLouth property and the adjoining Riverview land will take years to materialize.

The dilapidated buildings on the steel plant site are nearly all removed. Superfund experts now have to assess the environmental and health hazards that are left on the property and come up with a remedial plan. That cleanup work could start by this summer, and is expected to continue through 2033. Even then, the land likely will never be suitable for residential or park use, according to the EPA.

Trenton’s new W-R district also will be applied to the site of the DTE Energy Trenton Channel Power Plant, which is slated to be shuttered in 2022. That closing will further shrink the city’s tax base.

The mayor said: “The intent of the district recognizes that the existing conditions on these sites have been profoundly shaped by their industrial past and remain suitable for certain types of such uses due to their locational assets, and further recognizes that they remain desirable to preserve and balance the city’s tax base and employment opportunities.”

While community support for the W-R zoning is strong, those who added their voices to the outcry against the earlier I-W idea are urging future vigilance. Some of those voices came from the Grosse Ile Civic Association and some from the Trenton Visionaries and Stakeholders group, which was formed to “educate and engage citizens, community leaders, and city officials of Trenton and its stakeholders in order to advocate for the implementation of the goals and strategies of the Trenton Coast Resiliency Master Plan.”

Trenton Councilwoman Wendy Pate founded the Visionaries group. She —and all of the other council members — voted in favor of W-R.

“While this is a much better framework for economic development, it is not time to sit back and relax,” she posted on Facebook. “We have to continue to work hard to bring developers to our town who share our vision, and we have to educate ourselves and our commissioners on what this zoning ordinance scope really is.”

“This is just the beginning of a long fight over the quality of life and protection of the environment in Trenton, Riverview and Grosse Ile,” posted the GICA.