Protecting a Jewel
Residents rally around Pleasant Lake
by Mary Beth Lewis
On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in October, seventy-three-year-old Bob Miller is in a bold mood. A descendant of Freedom Township’s early German settlers and a volunteer local historian, he’s bent on making a little history of his own: a swim in Pleasant Lake as late into the fall as he ever has dared.
Shirtless, framed by brilliant orange maple and red burning-bush leaves, he rides a bike down Hieber Road to his favorite bit of sandy shore.
The summer’s lawn-fertilizer-fed algae bloom has mostly dissipated. Motorcraft are few today, so the water ripples lightly in the breeze. The 125 or so cottages that line the shore thin out in the wetlands of the southeast side, where Miller lives. He keeps a rowboat aside tall grass at a modest plank dock.
The private lake looks much as it did when he was a child, though the graceful tall elms are long gone. Scrubby Russian olives and evergreens now cluster in the ever-tighter spaces between houses, most of which have become year-round dwellings. The lake still shimmers like a natural jewel, its water cool, clear, and abundant.
It could have been different—and could still be different if Miller and other residents don’t stay vigilant. In recent years the battle over Pleasant Lake has not been pleasant. The deepest gravel pit in southeast Michigan is being mined by Barrett Paving Materials Inc. barely a mile from where Miller swims. The impact on the lake and surrounding aquifer could be devastating, according to many local residents. Or, if you subscribe to the viewpoint of Barrett and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, it could be nothing.
Barrett has had a gravel operation a mile southwest of the lake for more than forty years. But when the gravel company requested a permit expansion in 2005, many residents fell into a panic—because this time, the company wanted to dig much deeper.
“It could be fifteen miles from here and [our] wells could go dry,” Freedom Township supervisor
Robert Little told the Ann Arbor News in October 2006.
Little died a year later. His appointed successor, Dale Weidmayer, signed a revised version of Barrett’s excavation permit on May 13, 2008. The compromise ended three years of discussion, petition, and negotiation. Now Pleasant Lake and surrounding Freedom Township have placed their water under a custom-designed series of monitoring safeguards. Township attorney Mark Reading, who devised them with a hydrologist’s help, says they’re “relatively certain” to protect residents from contamination or lowering of their lakes and water table due to Barrett’s expanding mine.
After all, Pleasant Lake is central—geographically and symbolically—to the fight to preserve open spaces and the tranquil lifestyle they sustain.
If you drive from Ann Arbor to Manchester along Pleasant Lake Road, don’t blink if you want to catch sight of the hamlet of Fredonia and the lake that put it on the map.
At the Pleasant Lake Inn, the patrons are largely commuters seeking wind-down banter, beer, and fried or grilled fare. A few driveways south at the Fredonia Grocery, a substantial selection of smokes is available—along with, as the marquee promises, “beer, videos, and bait,” and country-store essentials from Band-Aids to cake decorations.
Fur trader–turned–saloonkeeper Jacob Lutz opened the first inn on the lake after immigrating from Germany in 1848. “You can imagine the thrill the Lutz children would experience when one day each summer they would hear the clamoring of wagon wheels and the loud trumpeting of elephants—they knew that this announced that the circus was coming,” states Patty Paczkowski in a 1980 history. “The elephants, tired from pulling the wagons, would quicken their pace as they smelled the refreshing water of the lake.”
The inn helped make Pleasant Lake a resort destination for picnickers, sportsmen, and big-band dancing fans. University of Michigan football team equipment manager Manny Sodt took over in 1925 and added cabins. His Pleasant Lake House was a retreat for athletes, and track star Jesse Owens was reportedly a visitor.
Miller was a young boy, he would row with his grandfather across the lake on a weekly excursion to dock at the inn for a few drinks. Miller grew up on a sheep farm on Hieber Road on the south shore of Pleasant Lake but moved on as a young adult—even to Ethiopia for fifteen years, working with a Lutheran mission. He came back to raise his three children at the family farmstead. He worked as a vocational instructor in area schools and spent twenty years on Freedom Township’s planning commission. That’s when he got his first taste of the disorder of many official records.
Now Miller takes time away from his tree farm, gardens, chickens, and guinea hens to work on organizing a history of the area, its early settlers, and their nascent self-government. He even built the red-oak frames around the old maps on the Township Hall walls. He says he has “come full circle, back to the township where our clan started in 1835.”
In Freedom Township, “we have cemeteries, churches, roads, farms, and that’s about it,” says Miller. There are a few businesses—craftspeople, an orchard, a golf course, veterinarians. But by far the biggest enterprises are four gravel mining operations.
Beth Heuser, like Miller, grew up on the south shore of Pleasant Lake. She moved from her childhood home when she married in 1962, and returned permanently in 1999. Her retirement on Pleasant Lake has been a time of environmental and political action. With dozens of old-timers and newcomers alike, Heuser has been working to leave the lake and local groundwater pure and plentiful.
They’ve taken on threats incrementally. First, through the Pleasant Lake Association, Heuser worked to introduce weevils to the lake in 2003 to fight an invasive plant, Eurasian water milfoil; she was involved in doing research, drafting a petition, and raising funds from fellow riparians. The intervention seems to be working, she says.
That campaign was just a warm-up. In August 2005, when Barrett proposed digging 140 feet deep at its own mining lake, the reaction was swift from local residents, who all rely on wells for water. “Pleasant Lake is thirty-five feet at its deepest,” says Heuser. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the problem.”
Longtime locals, including Miller, understood Pleasant Lake to be fed both by springs and by a watershed of marshlands to the east, near his farmstead. They feared the deeper pits would affect the aquifer drastically.
But after investigating, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted Barrett its state permit. Mary Vanderlaan, with the Jackson district of the MDEQ Land and Water Management Division, says state officials went over everything with their hydrologist and “he felt very confident there would be no major or even measurable impact on Pleasant Lake or streams in the area.”
Citizens like Heuser felt that neither the MDEQ nor township officials were digging deep enough. They banded together as CROW (Citizens Respecting Our Waters) and started raising thousands of dollars for legal services and hydrology expertise. They recruited the Washtenaw Land Trust and the Sierra Club for the fight and filed an independent “contested case hearing” petition with the MDEQ against Barrett’s permit.
After CROW raised its stink, Freedom Township withheld its local permit for the excavation and filed its own objection to the MDEQ permit. It also rewrote its excavation ordinance, giving itself more authority to impose conditions. If Barrett fails to comply, the township can yank its permit and shut down operations—though doing so would likely bring on a huge legal battle.
The MDEQ required Barrett to do some monitoring of wells, but Freedom Township’s hydrologist on contract, Robert Hayes, whose report proved Pleasant Lake was spring fed, wanted more monitoring sites. The locations MDEQ required wouldn’t provide information “early enough for action if a problem developed,” township attorney Reading says.
The township asked for, and eventually got, additional monitoring sites both on Barrett’s property and around Pleasant Lake itself. Reading says the township will be able to detect two key threats before they would affect areas off site: a drop in water level or contamination through mining processes. “Based on what my hydrologist says, there’s a relative certainty that a situation that could adversely affect riparian interests off site would be detected on site, hopefully in sufficient time to check the situation,” he says. “That’s the critical facet we insisted on.”
Barrett will pay for the plan with thousands of dollars deposited annually into an escrow account, according to Reading. In exchange for accepting this and other conditions, all parties agreed Barrett could go ahead and dig a deeper pit.
Though neither activists nor the township stopped the mine expansion, Heuser sees the plan as a victory of sorts. She says the group plans to stay active whether or not she and CROW’s slate of environmental activists win their races for township offices. (The slate on the November 4 ballot included the first Democratic Party candidates to appear on Freedom Township ballots in decades.)
“Because I was involved in this, I saw how we need to be more proactive,” Heuser said. “Why wasn’t someone on the board coming forward and challenging assumptions that were obviously wrong? Gravel pits find it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission [when] pushing the envelope.”
As Bob Miller returns after his swim to his tree-lined farm, chest red and dripping from the bracing dip, he dismisses praise. Tell him that some people his age have already moved into retirement homes, and he has a quick rejoinder: “I am in my retirement home.” He’s there with his wife, Lilli, and his woodwork shop. Their grown children occasionally visit, and abundant gentleman-farmer projects spread across the acres where his dad’s sheep once grazed.
His local history project is also keeping him busy; Miller and Ray Berg, of the Manchester Area Chamber of Commerce, are working against the clock. “We’re encouraging people to write stories about their families, to salvage them while we still can, before we all die off and the history is gone,” Miller says. Having good township records doesn’t hurt in dealings with gravel companies either, he observes.
Miller recognizes the ways life on Pleasant Lake has changed. Light pollution means fewer stars visible at night. There’s more noise with more cars, school buses, gravel trucks, and home remodeling contractors—although the ostentatious boathouses that clog the shorelines of many an affluent lakeside community are thankfully absent. Even the motor home park near the inn is tidy and well kept.
The lovely lake has no public access, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a public interest in keeping it clean and stable. Circus elephants don’t come anymore for a long cool drink, but serene views of the lake’s quiet blue expanse are still freely available to travelers along winding Pleasant Lake Road.
[Originally published in January, 2009.]