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Ottawa County property owners call foul on drain fees

Posted at 7:21 PM, Aug 20, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-21 11:31:33-04

OTTAWA COUNTY, Mich. -- Park Township residents in Ottawa County are upset over a drain assessment widely deemed controversial.  They live within a drainage district consisting of roughly 1800 properties.

However, only a fraction of property owners within the district are being forced to pay for the new drain. The project is valued at $6.1 million.

Martha Urbin owns a home on Greenly Street. She reached out to FOX 17 about the assessment.

"My individual [assessment] is $6,590," Urbin said.

She said she's been fighting an assessment for roughly 5 years when the township board voted it through.

In 2008, a flood affected homes in Park Township. As a result, the township board decided a new drain was needed to prevent future problems. However, today residents say that drain is not needed, and the cost for the proposed drain isn't being spread fairly.

Residents said the other 1100 property owners who don't have to pay will also benefit from the new drain.

Of the $6.1 million total, residents are stuck paying for another drain design that failed. That was worth more than $1.1 million.

The county and the road commission will pay $750,000. Park Township will pay $1.5 million. Property owners must pay more than $2 million.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will contribute $1.7 million through a grant targeting "water quality."
Water quality is something residents say is now the focus for the assessment and everyone in the drainage district will benefit.

"If you're going to do water quality, we share. That's my big thing," Rick Ruprecht, a property owner said.

"When you reduce the drain district to 50% just last week from what it was... what does that imply? It implies something's not right. Something's not fare," Ruprecht said.

FOX 17 visited the Ottawa County Water Resource Commissioner (formerly titled Drain Commissioner) Joe Bush. He declined to go on camera
because he said the numbers aren't final, and he didn't want to give any misinformation.

Bush did respond to the residents concerns off camera.

He said he's just following the Michigan Drain Code of 1956, and it's just doing his job. Bush claims this is more of a flood prevention project for the 713 property owners. Bush said water quality is only part of it.

He said the exempt properties, many of them blueberry farms, were removed from the assessment because they already have their own drains.

Bush added that property owners will have their chance to appeal in probate court. However, Martha Urbin said the appeals process is flawed.

"The only avenue you have is to appeal the methodology of how the assessment was arranged... calculated. They will not make public what this methodology is," Urbin said. She also said the appeals process has become increasingly expensive.

When FOX 17 questioned the drain commissioner about property owners' lack of access to the assessment's methodology, Bush said he plans to make those factors available on Thursday.

Bush said the probate court review board could come up with one of three decisions.
- Let the assessment stand as-is
- Assess a fee to other properties in the district that are currently exempt
- Possibly make Park Township pay more

Urbin said residents plan to continue to fight what she calls an unfair assessment.