Last month, the Stellantis Jeep factory on Detroit’s east side racked up its fifth air quality violation from the state since September.
The violations mean the company is falling short on commitments it made to the City of Detroit in a deal to protect the quality of life for nearby residents. The agreement, required under the city’s controversial, voter-approved Community Benefits Ordinance, guarantees benefits, like hiring or housing, for Detroiters who could be negatively impacted by large-scale development projects.
Critics say the Stellantis violations speak to the weaknesses in the law that they argue isn’t always enforced, but officials with the city department responsible for monitoring project compliance said its options for enforcement are limited.
Under the 2017 law, Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion, and Opportunity department, or CRIO, was given oversight of progress with the developments. The ordinance however doesn’t authorize CRIO to issue fines or injunctions when projects aren’t hitting targets, said Anthony Zander, the city’s new head of CRIO.
“The enforcement process consists of labeling the provision “Off Track” on the Biannual Community Benefits Report, notifying the company of non-compliance, and allowing the company the opportunity to cure compliance with a compliance plan,” Zander told BridgeDetroit.
Zander said CRIO is monitoring 11 Community Benefits Agreements with 350 total provisions and his department is “diligent in ensuring compliance on all provisions.”
“There has not been a need for any heavy enforcement, as developers have continued to meet their commitments,” he added.
But some residents in the east side neighborhood near Stellantis, including Rhonda Theus, a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council for the project, disagree.
“Things will be out of compliance and CRIO will give excuses,” said Theus, one of nine members appointed to the advisory council to work with the developer on its benefits plan for the community. “The air quality has become a big issue.”
At least one member of Detroit City Council is hoping to propose revisions to strengthen the law and to get the plan before the full legislative body ahead of its August recess.
Stellantis awaits odor fixes
According to CRIO’s February biannual compliance report, all 11 projects engaged with the community benefits ordinance are in compliance, but two – Stellantis and Michigan Central Station – have had at least one commitment off track this year. For Michigan Central, the issue – since corrected, according to project developer Ford Motor Co. – centered around hiring commitments.
The Stellantis agreement had 66 commitments, including a promise to invest $4 million in manufacturing career academy programs for youth, $1.8 million toward home repair grants, and contributions to an improvement plan for Chandler Park as well as a number of environmental initiatives.
The automaker is largely in compliance with its agreements with the city, but its air quality issues violate state law.
A spokesperson for Stellantis told BridgeDetroit that the company is working to address the issues with new odor mitigation equipment which needs to be permitted through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE. Until the equipment is approved and installed, there is a likelihood that there could be more odor violations, the company noted. Stellantis did not provide a timeline for when the air quality issues would be solved.
Theus told BridgeDetroit that during a meeting requested by the NAC in early May, officials with the city said they weren’t responsible for compliance with state air quality laws, punting the issue to the state.
Although CRIO’s enforcement is restricted to monitoring and compliance reports, Zander said that the law does provide for “escalation” if companies fail to abide by their compliance plans.
That escalation, Zander said, consists of an investigation by CRIO’s enforcement committee and a report back to the NAC.
If the NAC disagrees with the findings of the enforcement committee, the council can then appeal to the city council for a final decision. If the council finds that CRIO’s enforcement committee did not adequately enforce the CBO, then the council could set its own penalties, including requiring that city-provided financial benefits be paid back, cancellation of land transfers or land sales, exclusion from provisions, or fees.
Stellantis’ NAC is awaiting a response from the enforcement committee after NAC members shared their concerns.
“There’s a variety of draconian actions that city council could take but those actions would only be taken if there is really profound evidence that the developer simply is refusing, is behaving in a bad faith way, and has no intention of meeting the agreements that that particular developer, with the help of the city, made to the community,” said Conrad Mallett, Detroit’s corporation counsel.
“There has never been a moment where they [Stellantis] have not responded to the state and not diligently tried to comply,” Mallett said. “The statute gives them opportunities to correct the situation that the state has deemed to be inappropriate. And they have, in each instance, taken those steps and have stayed in communication with us and the state of Michigan.”
Zander said CRIO continues to diligently follow the state’s lead on provisions and laws that EGLE may have jurisdiction over.
Jill Greenberg, a spokesperson for EGLE, said the enforcement process for violations to state law is long, and no fines have yet been assessed for Stellantis.
The state doesn’t have direct authority to issue fines for noncompliance with the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance itself, but can issue fines for violations to state law that overlap with community benefit agreements.
A civil rights complaint was filed in November by east side neighbors through the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, alleging that EGLE discriminated against the area’s predominantly low-income residents of color by allowing Stellantis to expand there. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the claim.
Theus told BridgeDetroit that the Neighborhood Advisory Council is considering taking the air quality issues to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency if they are not adequately addressed by the city or state.
She claims there’s been a lack of action that’s “disappointing and disheartening” and the city should be doing more and ensuring that the state follows through.
“These are city residents, and this facility has documented air quality issues,” she said. “At the very least they (the city) should get involved and acknowledge it, and try to ensure that EGLE is on top of things.”
‘We can do more’
Councilwoman of District 6, Gabriela Santiago-Romero said enforcement is definitely something the council wants to work with CRIO on. In this year’s budget resolution, council members called on the Law Department and CRIO to “vigorously enforce” non-compliance in benefits agreements.
“So many of us see big development happening in our districts. We want to make sure that if we are providing these contracts that they follow through with their commitments,” she said.
“There were a number of things that Stellantis needed to do in order to provide protections for residents, given that they were going to be a major factory there,” said Santiago-Romero, adding the company “is not really meeting the standards or the needs of residents,” who are being impacted by the pollution.
One factor that has made enforcement difficult, according to Santiago-Romero, is turnover in the CRIO department. Last month, Zander became the third person appointed to head the department in the past five years.
The ordinance has drawn criticism since its inception from some of the city’s past and new council members as well as community groups that have argued it’s confusing and doesn’t provide for enough enforcement or give neighborhoods enough say.
Santiago-Romero hopes to propose amendments to strengthen the law, which she said could be taken to a vote before the council’s August recess.
“The triggers aren’t enough,” she said. “We can do more, we can ask more of our developers.”
Development projects valued at $75 million or higher trigger the CBO process, but Santiago-Romero said she wants to see the ordinance kick in at a lower price point, and additionally, see a greater radius of the community around the projects engaged.
Theus also is in favor of amending the ordinance so it’s less “arduous” and to ensure that it truly benefits the residents, she said.
“We had a short amount of time,” said Theus, noting the advisory council had roughly six weeks to design a plan for how the developer would provide benefits to the neighborhood and incorporate community feedback and concerns. That process, she said, required more than 10 hours of unpaid time per week on behalf of the NAC members.
But not everyone is in favor of making changes to the law.
The ordinance, coined Proposal B on the city’s 2016 ballot, was backed by Mayor Mike Duggan’s administration and some union and business groups who argued a policy too restrictive could drive businesses out of the city. It was touted as a compromise to a community-led ballot Proposal A that had stricter provisions and lower investment thresholds.
Last September, Council Members James Tate and Scott Benson voted against a proposal that would have lowered the project threshold from $75 million to $50 million.
Benson, who helped draft the ordinance adopted by voters in 2016, told BridgeDetroit he doesn’t support any amendments given “the fact that the people voted on this and the fact that city council went through a two-year process that ended last year, with some amendments being made.”
In September, the city’s prior council voted to increase the amount of public meetings Detroit must hold before the council approves a project from one to five. They also agreed to expand the area around projects where residents must be notified of the meetings.
Ford back on track
Besides Stellantis and Michigan Central, other projects engaged with the community benefits ordinance include: Herman Kiefer, Hudson’s, Book Building and Tower, Monroe Block, Detroit Pistons Performance Facility and Headquarters, Wigle: Midtown West, Lafayette West, Mid, and Michigan and Church.
In its benefits plan, Ford Motor Co. agreed to create affordable housing, invest $2.1 million in neighborhood development, ensure residents in the impacted area have access to training and job opportunities, and a number of other initiatives.
By February, Ford hadn’t followed through on all of its commitment to job opportunities, struggling to meet its promise that 30% of the value of city contracts go to businesses headquartered or based in Detroit.
The company has since met and surpassed that commitment, Gabrielle Poshadlo, communications director for the real estate branch of Ford, told BridgeDetroit in May.
“Currently, nearly half of our contracts are with Detroit-based businesses, and nearly 30% are with women and minority-owned businesses,” Poshadlo said.
“To me, that is indicating that the process is really working,” added Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit City Councilwoman and Neighborhood Advisory Council member for Michigan Central station. “My experience, in general with the train station CBA (community benefits agreement), is that the city and Ford have been very conscientious about paying attention to what the expectations were … and making sure that they get honored.”
CRIO is in the process of collecting data from developers on the community benefits agreements for its July report, at which time the office will have updates on the status of the rest of the projects.
Residents’ concerns with CBO compliance can be submitted to CRIO’s using the public comment form.