The chilly spring wind was blowing the right way Wednesday.
Residents on Eberlein Drive in Fraser caught a reprieve. The stench of human excrement wasn’t wafting through the neighborhood — this afternoon.
But the hum of earth movers and the rattle of construction trucks remained audible out their front doors, heard even at the far end of the cul-de-sac, on which fewer than two dozen contemporary brick homes are situated.
Along a temporary dirt road —– the only road leading in and out of the family oriented neighborhood — is a fence and concrete barriers.
On the other side of the barrier is a deep dirt pit with several pieces of construction equipment — a pit so big it looks like it could fit a football field inside it. The spot once supported two houses — residences that were condemned after a giant underground sewer interceptor collapsed on Christmas Eve day, spilling out raw sewage, creating a sinkhole and upending the neighborhood, its residents and nearby businesses.
Where the temporary road meets 15 Mile near Hayes Road, there is more construction, including tall cranes and large tubes. A dirt plume floated in the air across the intersection at 15 Mile and Hayes on Wednesday.
This, several Eberlein residents say, is life after the discovery of the sinkhole.
“We live in a construction area. Our homes are hurt (because of) this for a year,” said Doug Taylor, who has lived on Eberlein for three years. “When we have friends over, there is a stench in the air. It’s not a great situation … This has been worse than I thought it would be.”
While Macomb County officials have promised the repair work will be completed by fall, that still leaves spring and summer — warm months — to contend with the smell, dirt, noise and lighting in the around-the-clock work area on 15 Mile.
To compound the mess — constant since returning from weeks staying at hotels or relatives’ homes after being evacuated the day before Christmas — came more salt to the Eberlein homeowners’ wounds: Higher property assessments.
Several Eberlein residents and a lawyer representing a dozen of the families on the street said the assessments they received this year from the city went up, shocking homeowners.
They appealed to the city’s Board of Review last month, but residents and the attorney said they are learning that the board is offering no relief. Now, the property owners have to decide whether to appeal to the Michigan Tax Tribunal, a process that could take months.
“It’s a slap in the face. What’s improved?” said Joshua Morton, a three-year Eberlein resident, who said he believes he may have to pay a few hundred dollars extra this year for a property where his young children can’t even go outside and play because of the smell.
“They’re going to be stuck with these elevated assessments even though their property is rendered worthless this year,” said Dan Harold, an attorney with Morganroth and Morganroth in Birmingham who is representing more than half of the Eberlein families on the assessment matter.
Harold said he was one of the attorneys who represented residents affected by a 2004 sewer collapse and sinkhole on the same sewer interceptor under 15 Mile — on the same side of the street — practically a stone’s throw west in neighboring Sterling Heights.
Harold said assessments also went up for those Sterling Heights property owners in 2005, but that city’s board of review granted reductions that he recalled on average of 60%.
Sterling Heights officials said a records review indicated that in 2005, 11 appeals were granted related to the 2004 sinkhole in the city.
David Oster said his family has lived on Eberlein since 2001 on what he said is “a great street” with “good neighbors, very quiet” and not a lot of turnover. He said the assessment on his home went up about $10,000 this year.
While the board of review was “very sympathetic,” Oster said, its members told residents there was “nothing we can do.”
Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols said property values have been a concern for officials and residents, none of whom want to see values decline. He said that he was aware the assessments didn’t go down, but that doesn’t mean they won’t change in the future based on comparisons, also called comps.
City Assessor Debra Kopp could not be reached by the Free Press for comment.
But in an e-mail to Nichols, she said that any reduction in assessments because of the sinkhole would come next year.
Kopp indicated in a separate e-mail provided by Nichols that values were reduced to a nominal value on the three houses that were condemned.
But Harold, who is representing many of the Eberlein homeowners, said there is a comp that could be considered — the 2004 sinkhole in neighboring Sterling Heights.
“This is the perfect comp and their failure to grasp that is beyond me,” he said. “The board (of review) seemed sympathetic, yet they weren’t in the end.”
Even if Eberlein residents eventually get relief on their property assessments at the state level, they are going to pay more in other areas — their sewer bills.
They and other ratepayers in 11 communities in the central swath of the county are in the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District. County officials have said those ratepayers are still paying for the 2004 sinkhole repairs that cost $53 million.
Now, the ratepayers will have to pay to fix the December collapse on the part of the line in Fraser, which is estimated to cost $70 million to $75 million, with households in the affected communities possibly paying an average of $55 more a year to cover repairs and any future work, if needed, to the rest of the interceptor. The repair work and possible future work on the 11-foot-wide line could cost $150 million total, officials said.
Delma Modina is one of those ratepayers. And for the retired nurse, she is having déjà vu and lots of empathy for those who live on Eberlein Drive.
She was one of the Sterling Heights residents impacted by the 2004 sinkhole at 15 Mile and Fontana, living through an initial evacuation and construction noise for about three-quarters of a year in her back yard.
“It was bad,” she recalled of the 2004 sinkhole. “The construction. It was annoying. The sounds, you could feel the shakes. Oh my God.”
Nearly 13 years later, Modina lives in the same house near the entrance of Villa Fontana subdivision, an entrance that was busted up by the 2004 sinkhole. She, like others, said she believes the recent sinkhole — one of three in nearly 40 years on the line — is worse because this time three homes were condemned — two of them, sadly, had to be razed.
“The worst now is seeing the empty hole where the two houses were demolished,” said Craigen Oster, who moved back home with his parents on Eberlein in the fall to finish his last year of school at University of Detroit Mercy. “It’s kind of, just, well, surreal overall.”
Driving in or out of Modina’s subdivision, visitors see huge piping on 15 Mile — the end of the aboveground, temporary sewer bypass that stretches more than a mile east on top of the road to east of Utica Road in Fraser. The nearby construction inconveniences her, her neighbors and others who have to drive a little farther and longer to detour around the blocked areas on 15 Mile and Hayes because of the construction.
The sewer bypass is expected to be completed soon, possibly in a week, County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said Thursday. More than a half-million residents and tens of thousands of businesses in the 11 impacted communities finally may be able to return to normal water usage after months of requests to restrict water because of the collapse.
The Osters remember a similar experience with constant construction work being done in the same area near their street and travel inconveniences.
This time, however, is a little more difficult. There was some sewer backup into their basement, David Oster said, and houses have a yellow survey marker on the side to assess whether there is any movement from the sinkhole.
Miller said officials are aware of the smell, dirt and noise and are trying their best to mitigate the situation and repair the collapse. She said officials are trying to eliminate the hydrogen sulfide odor by installing biofilters and scrubbers and injecting ferrous chloride in the bypass. But there’s not much they can do about the smell from the sewage-soaked ground in the sinkhole area, which officials have described as being like a septic field. A big part of the repair project is excavating the contaminated soil and trucking it to a landfill.
Excavation is happening now and will probably last into July, she said. Residents and businesses can anticipate another disruption that Miller said officials are trying to see whether there may be a way to mitigate — noise from drilling.
“That will be noticeable. They are gonna hear this drilling,” Miller said. “We feel great empathy for everyone dealing with this. We are trying to get this done very quickly. We feel bad for the people who live there, the residents and the businesses.”
David Oster said while the situation in his neighborhood is an inconvenience, he is less impacted than his neighbors who live closer to the construction area. He also didn’t have to deal with the horrible loss of being the homeowners who watched their houses — perhaps their biggest investments — bulldozed.
Oster said he isn’t interested in moving, but he wonders when will be the point they could sell their house for what they think it’s worth.
At the far end of the street — a ranch-style house sitting right next to the fence separating it from the construction area and the third condemned house that has not been razed — went up for sale last month.
Realtor Gerry Miller said he sold the house at 34940 Eberlein to the couple living there more than a decade ago. But now, he said, “all of the smells and the dust” is getting to one of the homeowners.
“It’s a pretty unfortunate situation for all those homeowners,” he said.
Miller — who said he has been a real estate agent for more than 30 years, mostly in Macomb County — described the three-bedroom house as in excellent condition with beautiful updates, such as cherry cabinets and granite countertops. It is listed for $274,900, and Miller said that the pre-sinkhole asking price “is not too high.”
He said as of Tuesday, there have been no showings and the homeowners continue to live in the home. The online listing notes the home “is very close” to the drain district, adding “Massive sink hole. It is 2 homes away from the property that is sinking!” The photos showcasing the house also include three pictures of the construction area outside.
Karen Greenwood, president of the Greater Metropolitan Association of Realtors, said the situation affects all the communities in the drainage district, not just Fraser.
“While it is too early to assess the total damages caused to properties and the overall economic impact, it will be almost impossible to calculate the actions or inactions of property sellers and buyers after the collapse,” she said.
Greenwood said that agents in the association will work to secure the long-term sustainability and viability of Fraser, and staff will monitor the situation and work with Realtors, property owners and government officials to “ensure there is a robust housing market in the 11 affected communities.”
Morton said he listed his Eberlein house for sale in November, but pulled it off the market with a third child on the way. He said he doesn’t think it’s feasible to sell it now, anticipating a huge loss.
Even enjoying the house this summer might be difficult. One day the house — with closed windows — smelled, he said, with odor coming in through the furnace. He said he might open his pool, but, “I probably won’t swim in it,” given he’s not sure how much dirt and debris will land in it.
Taylor said he thought the worst-case scenario for his Eberlein home would be the assessment staying the same.