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‘This land is ours’

Residents vent grievances to city officials over land grab

By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen

DETROIT — During a listening session, held Aug. 22, about the city’s land sale process hosted by the Detroit Food Policy Council (DFPC), city officials told residents that the process was “convoluted” and that it’s likely “big projects” will be processed more quickly.

“I hate to say it but money talks,” Robert Anderson, director of the Planning and Development Department, told almost 200 residents who’d gathered inside Gleaners Food Bank on the city’s lower east side to hear from the city as to why there’s so much red tape involved in purchasing land and to air their grievances about their land purchasing experiences.

“If we have a big project that’s going to create jobs … that’s going to go through.”

Residents grumbled about what types of jobs would be created and for whom the jobs were intended.

The listening session was scheduled because of the controversy created by Hantz Farm President John Hantz’s attempt to purchase a large portion of city land — 1,900 lots for forestry development.

“He’s never even said what type of jobs this project would create,” one resident said.

Local urban gardeners and urban farmers have protested Hantz’s acquisition of the land because of the city’s unwillingness to sell even small plots of land to residents.

DFPC member Malik Yakini said, “no one person or entity should be able to acquire that much publicly owned land.

“We are concerned that there is a fair, just, transparent process for the sale of city-owned land,” Yakini told the Michigan Citizen. “Wealthy developers should not be extended favor that is not shown to the average Detroiter.”

According to Anderson, the process for residents should be easy. Although he says “there’s no difference between a resident and non-resident purchasing land” and that neither has priority, property owners must be current on their taxes.

City Council has already approved the purchase of adjacent lots only at $200 for residents. This does not include other lots in their neighborhood. What should take only weeks often takes months or even years.

“The process is too convoluted,” said Anderson, who’s been with the city department for 18 months. “I don’t think I can walk you through the process. It doesn’t work, obviously.”

Anderson calls himself a “change agent,” however, and says he looks forward to affecting change in Detroit.

“We have to automate what we do,” Anderson told residents. “(Right now) we have to get too many signatures for everything we do. We have to find a way to get things done more efficiently.”

Anderson says the Planning and Development Department is going to do a better job of getting information on the city’s Web site to help residents’ navigate the purchasing process more smoothly. But this, too, is going to take some time.

He acknowledged that residents’ lack of faith in the administration’s ability to provide equitable purchasing opportunities.

“Where the city loses credibility is serving people in homes, if we don’t do that it doesn’t matter with the Hantz’s or anyone else,” Anderson said.

Marcell Todd, director of the City Planning Commission, said new zoning ordinance regulations that are “coming down the line” could allow a sale like Hantz’s to go forward.

“We’ve been working on amendments that would allow urban agriculture to officially take place,” Todd said. “In order to protect the public at large, we want (these) regulations to be in place.”

As of now the city does not have ordinances to regulate urban farming, according to Todd.

He says if the city was to sell Hantz or anyone land knowing that was their proposed use of land, they could run into problems with state law.

“Essentially the deal is the state has a law intended to protect traditional farming. Those regulations don’t take into account if you were doing farming in an urban setting,” said Todd. “We want to make sure that the use is consistent with an urban setting. What we’re saying is if you want to do commercial agriculture, there are no regulations to do that and that’s what we’ve been working on.”

Todd says the Planning Commission has planned to hold a public hearing in October.

“We hope to have regulations in place by the end of the year.”

Naomi Anderson, a resident in the lower east side for over 30 years and a member of the McDougal-Hunt Citizens District Council, said projects like Hantz should come before the Council and she had not heard of it.

“Before they sell any property, especially the lots, they should contact property owners who live in the city and tell them what’s available,” Anderson told the Michigan Citizen.

Bobbi Burnahm, a resident in Southwest Detroit said she has two vacant lots on one side of her home and one on the other. She’s been trying since 2006 to purchase the two lots that had been sold to a man in Brooklyn.

“I mow it. He hasn’t done anything,” Burnham said during the public comment. “It costs me $100 a month and I’m disabled and my income is not very much.”

Burnham asked why she couldn’t purchase the lots when the owner is not only being negligent but has not paid taxes on the lot.

“I know because I saw it online. It’s due to be foreclosed on. I’m willing to pay taxes. I’m already taking care of it. Why is the city make it so difficult?” she asked.

Detroiter Ann Burn, who’s been an urban gardener for 29 years, says residents who secure and maintain the land should own it.

She suggested that neighborhood groups should be able to vet potential land owners “to see whose (use of the land) will most benefit the community.”

Many residents voiced their concerns. Some asked questions. Others made even more suggestions. And some expressed their frustration with the city.

An east side Detroiter in the 48213-14 zip code says she wasn’t sure what to expect from the session but she wasn’t satisfied with the city’s presentation.

“We know it takes a long time. We know there’s a lack of communication. What we don’t know is, What are they going to do about it?” she told the Michigan Citizen following the session. “They need to have a better marketing strategy. Hold open forums. Have information on the radio, like they’re doing with these schools. The same way we find out when the fireworks are. The city needs to get that information out to people so they have an opportunity to decide.”

Overall most agreed that residents should have priority when it comes to acquiring land in their city.

“I have tried to purchase but I don’t have an adjacent lot but there’s an abundance of land surrounding me,” said Donna McDuffie, a resident for 30 years. “I think residents should have first pick and should play an active role in the transformation of their neighborhood and community.”

For transcript of meeting or more information visit the Detroit Food Policy Council at , email or call 313.833.0396.

Contact Zenobia Jeffries at

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