On the environmental legacy of L. Brooks Patterson

Sprawl, schmall, but also natural areas and trails

By Nina Misuraca Ignaczak

Plenty of reminiscing these past two weeks has centered on the life and legacy of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who passed away on August 3. Planet Detroit took some time to delve into how the county executive’s 29-year career has impacted Metro Detroit’s environment.

So what was Brooks’ environmental legacy?

Here’s a rundown:

Natural Area Preservation & Trails Development

Perhaps Brooks’ strongest environmental legacy can be found in his support of county programs to identify, prioritize, and preserve critical natural areas and habitats in Oakland County. The county has undeniably been a leader in Michigan in this area, according to Dick Carlisle, a longtime planning consultant who worked with local governments in the county for most of his career.

“[Brooks] understood what the assets of Oakland County were; the beautiful natural areas, the lakes, the headwaters,” says Carlisle. “And that contributed to the type of an environment where people would want to work, live and play.”

In 2002, Oakland County’s planning department worked with the Michigan Natural Features Inventory to conduct the first countywide natural area assessment in the state, which became the basis for numerous local open space preservation plans. The inventory has been updated several times, most recently in 2017.

“Under Brooks’ leadership, the planning department supported MNFI’s work to identify and prioritize natural areas across the county as well as to conduct ecological surveys at several of those sites,” says John Paskus, a senior conservation scientist with the MNFI. “The County was then able to use that information to create a countywide green infrastructure plan, protect important places, and advance sound practices such as conservation design.”

In recent years the department has convened a “Trail, Water & Land Alliance” with more than 50 member organizations working together to conserve the county’s natural environment.

The inventory has also served as a blueprint for local land conservancies.

“Brooks was present at a press conference back in the early 1990s when Six Rivers Land Conservancy, at the time called the Oakland Land Conservancy, accepted its first preserve,” says Chris Bunch, executive director of the conservancy. “We are grateful to him for giving the county planning department the ability to invest substantial resources in assisting local communities and organizations like ours with planning and analysis.” 

However, Bunch notes, economic development always came first for Brooks.

“We wish he had been as committed to preserving the natural and agricultural assets of the region as he was to economic development,” says Bunch. “The aesthetic benefits, impacts on property values and limiting effect on infrastructure costs are well documented and at the foundation of communities and regions that have the highest success in attracting and retaining businesses and workforce.” 

Brooks also supported the county planning department’s efforts to help local governments build a countywide trail network. Today that network includes 138 miles of completed trails and pathways, three water trails (Huron, Shiawassee, Clinton), and segments of two cross-state trails (the Iron Belle Trail—Biking Route and the Great Lake to Lake Trail—Route 1), according to county data. The network also connects to trails in adjoining counties and to smaller trails within parks and neighborhoods.

Water Resources

Although much of the responsibility for water in the county falls under the authority of the Oakland County Drain Commissioner, Brooks actively promoted Oakland County as home to the headwaters of six river systems and more than 900 lakes.

But all is not pristine in Oakland County; combined sewers in the county’s urban southeast contribute to sewage overflows that flow into the Red Run Drain in Macomb County and then into Lake St. Clair. Despite expansions, the Kuhn Retention Basin at the border of Oakland and Macomb counties in Madison Heights is still not large enough to prevent many of those overflows. And within Oakland County, beach closures due to high bacteria levels are not uncommon.

“He was always an excellent administrator and a public servant in the truest sense of the word.  However, as an environmentalist he may have received mixed reviews,” says Jim Ridgway, a water resources engineering consultant who has worked in Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland County for decades.  “He was an early supporter of the Rouge River National Wet Weather Demonstration Program and generally supported any program that improved the quality of life in Oakland County and the region. At the same time, he could also push back on regulatory programs that hampered development and/or increased costs of home ownership. Thus, he could recognize environmental challenges like failing septic systems while opposing mandatory programs that would require testing that could lead to replacement of failing systems. To me, that was somewhat incongruous; to him, that is why he was elected.”

In his final State of the County address, Brooks announced a new environmental task force dedicated to addressing water contamination and waterborne illnesses based in the County’s health division, “whose mission is to respond to complex environmental concerns, including water contamination such as PFAS, harmful algal blooms, or water-borne illness such as Legionnaire’s Disease. Their directive is to leave no stone unturned to identify the source of water-related contamination or illness.”

Transit & Urban Sprawl

When it comes to the issues of transit and urban sprawl, Brooks’ critics are many and vociferous. (In)famously, Brooks coined the phrase “one man’s urban sprawl is another man’s economic development” and penned the “Sprawl, Schmall... Give Me More Development” manifesto (still on the county’s website as of this writing), enthusiastically endorsing greenfield development out to Oakland County’s hinterlands.

It’s a development pattern that dominated throughout the nation during the 1990s up until the Great Recession with well-documented negative environmental impacts. Metro Detroit was one of its leaders; a 2014 report by Smart Growth America ranked the region # 12 out of 221 metro areas for sprawling development patterns. And Brooks was sprawl’s proud advocate.

“The legacy created by sprawl is one of public debt. The maintenance for utilities and infrastructure is on the taxpayers of the future,” says local transit activist David Gifford. “If cities had to foot this bill up front, much of the suburban sprawl we have today never would have come about. Now our tri-county area is in debt to pay for roads for our cars.”

As for transit, Brooks was a consistent supporter of SMART, helped to create the RTA, and did not block the millage vote in 2016 (though he could have) that would have funded bus rapid transit and a train between Detroit and Ann Arbor. That measure was ultimately defeated by voters, if narrowly. Since 2017, his administration has maintained that it will not allow another transit vote until individual communities are allowed to opt-out of a regional transit tax, something RTA boosters say is a non-starter for regional transit.

“He was proud to support the local SMART bus service, but just in part of the county and just for people with no other choices like people with disabilities and low-income workers,” says Transit Riders United Executive Director Megan Owens. “His insistence on ‘protecting’ exurban taxpayers from investing in region-wide transit was devastating for the mobility of not only Oakland County but also the region. Tens of thousands of people were stuck driving pollution-spewing junker cars in order to keep their job or get to the doctor.”

Most egregious to transit advocates and sprawl-haters was the widening of I-75 in Oakland County to four lanes, something Brooks fought hard for and won.

“Sprawl wasn't inevitable—it was the direct consequence of government policies, like Patterson's,” says transit activist Joel Batterman. ‘Why else would Brooks have fought so hard to ensure that the state of Michigan widened I-75, for example, even as he vigorously opposed proposals for regional public transit?”

Environmental Justice

Under Brooks’ watch, the Oakland County Health Department actively worked with the county’s low-income and minority populations to address environmental health issues. In 2016, the Oakland County Health Department released its Community Health Improvement Plan, endorsed by Brooks, which includes a goal for “Equity” that states that the county “will continue to monitor the social determinants of health in Oakland County, with the ultimate goal of achieving the highest level of health for all people.” The plan includes actions that address environmental health for low-income populations, targeting things like housing quality, food access, and access to care.

On a regional level, it’s hard to deny that during Brooks’ time in office, Metro Detroit became one of the most segregated metro regions in the nation, and that environmental injustice in the region mapped overlaps significantly with segregation mapped. How much of that can be pinned on Brooks is, of course, up for debate.

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When it came to the environment, Brooks was guided by the same priorities that steered all of his actions. As Interim County Executive Gerald Poisson reiterated, Brooks’ mantra was 'If it's good for Oakland, good for the region, we do it. If it's neutral for Oakland County and good for the region or state, we do it. If it's bad for Oakland County, we simply aren't going to do it."

Brooks supported stewardship of the county’s natural resources and development of recreational and open space amenities that helped improve quality of life for its residents and businesses. He supported clean water but fought against the regulatory burdens on homeowners and businesses that might be necessary to achieve it. As for regional cooperation on development and transit—his support was reserved or he opposed it. And if given a choice between protecting the environment and economic development, you knew where he stood.

So what does the future hold?

As for who will replace Patterson in the long run, it’s still up in the air.

But whoever it is, longtime Oakland County resident and trails advocate Todd Scott says he looks “forward to new leadership that … recognizes that sprawl is not a sustainable growth model.”

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is Planet Detroit’s editor. She worked as an environmental planner for Oakland County’s planning department from 1999-2013.