Erma Leaphart at her home on Shaftsbury Avenue in the North Rosedale Park neighborhood of Detroit. Credit: Cybelle Codish
For the last three decades, Erma Leaphart has lived in her brick home in North Rosedale Park, the Detroit neighborhood that she absolutely loves. The nearby community house, grassy parks and large majestic trees make the area feel tight-knit, and Leaphart is heavily involved in strengthening those bonds. As a former board president of the North Rosedale Park Civic Association, she knows her neighbors – all of them. Her neighbors have great pride in living and staying in Detroit throughout the years while many others have left.
“We are involved, active and stewards of this community,” Leaphart said.
One of the reasons she moved to North Rosedale Park more than 30 years ago was because of this residential feel, and a lack of industry. But late last year, Pontiac company Asphalt Specialists, Inc. proposed to build an asphalt plant by the Southfield Freeway and I-96 interchange near her house, threatening the Northwest Detroit neighborhood she loves so much.
In the production of asphalt, toxic pollutants are released into the air, including particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. According to the United States Department of Labor, exposure to fumes from asphalt plants can result in a number of health issues including headache, fatigue and skin cancer. Research shows that pollution from asphalt plants can travel up to two miles away, meaning Leaphart and her neighbors’ homes would be at risk of exposure.
Leaphart and her neighbors learned of the company’s plans in November.
Afterward, it was only a short amount of time before a phone tree was activated, emails were sent and an online petition was circulated (garnering nearly 800 signatures to date) to oppose the plant. By December, 200 emails objecting to the proposal had been submitted to the city. Three had been submitted in favor.
The asphalt plant, residents decried, would add pollution to an area that already had environmental threats from the nearby waste management facility, freeway and Department of Public Works yard. They also worried it would create noise pollution and lower property values.
Following a Nov. 3 hearing, and in response to the large number of emails they received, the city of Detroit’s Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department, or BSEED, denied the company’s proposal on Nov. 30, Crain’s Detroit Business first reported. Asphalt Specialists was required to submit a proposal to make asphalt at the site, because the land is currently zoned for warehousing.
BSEED denied the proposal at the recommendation of its environmental affairs decision and the Wayne County Department of Public Health, according to Crain’s. The city’s Planning and Development Department, too, told BSEED that the plant didn’t align with designated land use for the area and could further exacerbate harms to the neighboring residential areas.
Asphalt Specialists Inc. filed an appeal to the city’s decision with the Board of Zoning Appeals. The hearing will take place on Feb. 15. The company did not return a request for comment.
Marshaling a neighbor-led movement
The robust fight to protect North Rosedale Park and the surrounding neighborhoods that all make up the Grandmont Rosedale community happened within a matter of weeks.
Leaphart said her and her neighbors’ strong involvement in their community helped them organize quickly.
“We’re connected, we have neighborhood associations, block clubs and initiatives,” she said. “We love [the neighborhood]. We take care of it.”
In fact, Leaphart is sure that if they had had more time, they would have gotten way more than 200 signatures by the time the decision was made.
The construction of asphalt plants near urban residential neighborhoods is not uncommon. In 2018, an asphalt plant was built in Chicago in McKinley Park, right next to a low-income neighborhood with a large Latino population. Since it opened, residents have submitted hundreds of complaints, mostly for noxious odors. Last year, despite a similar outpouring of opposition, an asphalt plant was approved to be built in Flint, across the street from public housing.
Approvals for developments with potentially harmful environmental outcomes are not uncommon in Detroit either, where residents have raised concerns about threats to air quality from Stellantis on the east side, Marathon in Southwest and many other industrial projects.
City denials of such projects, however, are more surprising. Since 2020, BSEED received a total of 82 industrial and manufacturing proposals. Of those, only Asphalt Specialists’ proposal was rejected. Three are still under review.
For other neighborhoods or communities seeking to have a say in potentially harmful development near them, the strategy seems to be rapid community involvement before the proposal has been approved, and plenty of it.
“A lot of the community showed up,” Erada Oleita, an organizer for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition who was involved with opposing Asphalt Specialists’ project, told Detour.
“We saw a lot of people showing up to the public hearing, making sure their voices were heard, talking to their community leaders and talking to their council people to make sure that they know ‘we do not want this in our neighborhoods,’” she said.
The grassroots opposition gained the attention of North Rosedale Park resident and City Council President Pro Tem James Tate, who sent out flier notices and posted on social media in support of the fight to deny the proposal.
“I, along with hundreds of my neighbors in District 1, stand staunchly in opposition to this development because of environmental concerns,” Tate told Detour. “We always welcome properties being reused for a purpose, but not just any purpose. It has to serve a purpose that benefits the community. And this one has not shown to be of that type of benefit,” he said.
Developers, he said, often bolster their case by pointing to the number of jobs they will create.
But, Tate said, “We’re not talking about thousands of jobs here. And even if it was, it still is not, in my opinion, a compromise for the potential environmental concerns.”
Tate’s social media posts about the issue are what caught the eye of Kathryn Savoie, the Detroit Health Director at Ann Arbor-based environmental nonprofit the Ecology Center. Savoie has had success in the past working to shut down projects with environmental hazards. For years she worked with several other Detroit environmental groups to get the city’s toxic incinerator, one of the largest solid waste facilities in the country, permanently closed. After becoming aware of Asphalt Specialists, Inc.’s proposal, Savoie took part in organizing against that as well.
To ensure that a community’s voices are heard on development projects, she said, it’s important to get involved in the beginning stages, when proposals are still at the city level.
“It’s hard to say, depending on who’s on the zoning board, but I think it’s just easier to have that kind of impact at the local level than at the state level,” she said.
With data provided by BSEED for only a two-year time period, and amounting to an estimated 95% approval rate for industrial and manufacturing proposals, Detour was unable to confirm or deny Savoie’s theory – but the state’s approval rate is typically high as well.
In the 2020 fiscal year, the state of Michigan’s environmental regulatory body, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, received 194 applications and approved 97% of more than 25,000 permit and license actions.
The asphalt plant, if it were to be approved, would then go to EGLE for a permit.
“Organize, educate yourself, learn about the development going on, who’s supporting it, who has the ability to make the decision that you’re concerned with, and then organize your community,” Savoie said. “I think that’s what always makes the difference, when elected officials are hearing from the people that they represent.”
Preserving a neighborhood
Tate has again worked to spread information about Asphalt Specialists’ proposal ahead of the Feb. 15 appeal hearing.
“The board of zoning appeals has the ability to listen to the community who has vehemently opposed this proposal in our community,” he said. “I’ll certainly be present and looking forward to an outcome that upholds BSEED’s denial.”
For Leaphart, mobilizing to stop the asphalt plant is about more than a single development; instead, it’s one piece of a fight to keep residents in Detroit, in thriving, healthy neighborhoods.
“We’re losing middle-class communities in Detroit,” she said. “This [neighborhood] is one where there are people who have an awful amount of dedication to maintaining a quality of life. We have new families moving here. So what kind of draw do you think this community, or the city of Detroit, will have if they’re allowing polluting industries to set up right in the middle of a community?”
According to a 2021 report from think tank Detroit Future City, just 5% of Detroiters live in a middle-class neighborhood, compared to 59% regionally.
“I never think about moving, ever,” Leaphart said. “I love it here. I love my neighbors. I love my community. So, I don’t want something to come here that would make me think ‘maybe it’s time for me to go.’ I don’t want to be pushed out.”
Reporting for this story was produced in partnership with the Detroit Equity Action Lab – Race and Justice Reporting Initiative, a program of The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.
Jena is a freelance journalist based in Detroit. She writes about the environment and intersections of race and inequality. Follow her on Twitter: @@j_e_n_a_b.