Development hits snags with EGLE over uranium

Development hits snags with EGLE over uranium

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Don McLean, developer of the River Trails condominium project in Portage Township, walks the roads of the proposed 126-acre development Monday.

PORTAGE TOWNSHIP — A proposed housing development near Houghton is running into regulatory issues with the state uranium levels in the water.

The River Trails condominium project lies between the Michigan Tech Trails and the Portage Lake Golf Course. Developer Don McLean is looking to build a first phase of 37 homes on the 126-acre property; a second phase would add 10 homes.

McLean said he hopes to address the area’s housing shortage. A recent Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region report found more than 1,200 single-family homes would be needed in Houghton County by 2045.

Thirty-six of the 126 acres would be dedicated to a nonprofit; McLean said he is working with Copper Country Trout Unlimited.

“This is set up to be a project that’s in balance with nature with limiting home sizes, the footprints, side yard, open space, pollinator plants on-site, food production,” he said. “…This is, I think, a pretty positive example of a blueprint for responsible land development.”

McLean had hoped to break ground on homes this year, but is awaiting wastewater and septic approval from the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Elevated levels of uranium have been found in the groundwater surrounding the property. Well samples at neighboring properties showed levels between 18 and 97 micrograms per liter, above the 30-microgram level considered safe for drinking.

After the WUPHD denied McLean’s permit application last year, McLean submitted a variance request to EGLE in January addressing concerns brought up by the health department. He submitted well data from 58 properties surrounding River Trails.

Condominium bylaws notified residents of the uranium issue and would require them to test for uranium. If levels were too high, they would need to install a reverse-osmosis system, which the WUPHD said typically produces enough daily drinkable water for a household. To demonstrate the wells could meet the required capacity, McLean increased storage and limited the on-site wastewater plans to two-bedroom houses.

“We wrote a letter of support stating the uranium is common in wells in our location in this region, and that reverse osmosis is an accepted method of removing uranium from drinking water,” said Kate Beer, health officer for the WUPHD. “And in regards to the capacity of the wells, we were comfortable with making sure that there were mitigating items out there to make sure that there was enough water pressure at the homes with water storage, to make sure there was enough water pressure.”

In March, EGLE notified McLean the variance request was “administratively incomplete.” Although state administrative rules allow for submitting data from surrounding wells, EGLE said the records were inconsistent in the yield methods used for the pressure test. And without specific water sample results of uranium testing on-site, there was not enough information to determine if a variance was warranted.

EGLE requested McLean drill at least three test wells on the property.

“Additional supporting documentation is required to be submitted to the WUPHD and the EGLE Onsite Wastewater Management Unit … Site specific information from test wells will provide information on the need for, or the merits of, a variance consideration,” the March letter said.

An EGLE spokesman declined additional comment on the matter pending the receipt of more documentation from McLean.

At this point, Beer said, the WUPHD’s role is to await a potential permit application from McLean to drill the wells.

McLean said he would have to spend $50,000 to $60,000 for each well. There was also no guarantee of approval, or of more wells being required. Well-drillers he talked to two years ago told him the results could vary even with wells drilled next to each other, he said.

“Doing a test well, or two or three, on 126 acres … everything’s going to be different,” he said.

McLean had investigated connecting to a municipal system, but said it was expensive and impractical. When McLean wrote to Michigan Tech about running a waterline from the golf course, the university said it could not accommodate the request, which would cause “significant damage” to the golf course and the cross-country ski trails.

That would also cost about $2 million, as would building a connection to the water line near Paradise Road, McLean said.

McLean said the project had met with widespread approval from local sources. Several wrote in support of a successful $100,000 state grant application that would allow the construction of 2 miles of trail on the property, ultimately linking to the Tech Trails. Others since have addressed the regulatory delay. In a January letter, WUPPDR Executive Director Gerald Wuorenmaa called for agencies to expedite the process “to the maximum extent possible.”

“The Keweenaw Peninsula is already far behind in satisfying housing demand,” he wrote. “River Trails is an important ingredient to help the region catch up and ultimately get ahead of housing development.”

While several buyers are still interested, another six or seven have walked away because of the delays, causing McLean to lose about $900,000 in closing fees, he said. If he was able to get approval this spring, he would theoretically be able to break ground on three or four homes this year, McLean said.

EGLE is scheduled to have a virtual meeting with McLean and Health Department officials next week. The meeting would be to clarify EGLE’s request for information, Beer said.

“We would like to know what further data they would need,” she said.

If he can’t make progress with EGLE in the next month, McLean said he will instead file for the project under the Land Act, which does not have the same well or septic regulations. That version of the project would have fewer homes, and also generate less taxes for the township and county, McLean said. He provided a Realtor estimate of around $3 million lost over 10 years.

“We will continue to do try to work with EGLE and the health department but there’s a point where we will file under the Land Act and do 17 lots, which will be bigger and won’t be priced for locals,” he said. “And we’ll end up a different neighborhood.”


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