Sharon Township Faces Legal Battle Against Multi-Billion Dollar Mining Giant
In a David-versus-Goliath legal showdown, Sharon Township is facing a lawsuit filed by an aggregate mining company called Stoneco of Michigan. Stoneco is owned by CRH, a multi-billion dollar building products company headquartered in Dublin, Ireland that employs more than 75,000 people in over 3,000 facilities across 29 countries.
The multinational conglomerate is suing the township after the township’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to deny Stoneco’s application for Special Land Use for a mining operation on Pleasant Lake Road in Washtenaw County. The lawsuit was filed on August 25, just one day after Stoneco also filed a civil appeal of the Sharon Township decision with the State of Michigan.
At the heart of the matter is 400 acres of land located on both the north and south sides of Pleasant Lake Road, just west of the intersection with M-52. Currently zoned for agricultural use, the property is considered “prime and important farmland,” according to Sharon Township Planning Commission’s Findings and Motion on Stoneco’s Special Land Use (SLU) Application.
The township’s Deputy Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis says when township officials learned of Stoneco’s multi-million dollar purchase of the agricultural property, they reached out to Stoneco to let them know the township was about to embark on a review of its zoning ordinance. He says the advanced notice was an effort to help Stoneco properly prepare for the three-phrase process necessary to rezone the property for a mining operation.
As detailed in the township’s zoning ordinance, the first phase in the application process requires the applicant to prove there is a need for the proposed mining material, which is sand and gravel in this case. If a need is proven, the second phase requires the applicant to prove that there are no serious consequences associated with the proposed operation. Once those two phases are completed successfully, the third and final phase is for the applicant to apply for a mineral license.
Problematic from the start
Psarouthakis says despite the township’s multiple efforts to work with Stoneco on a successful application for SLU and a mineral license, Stoneco has fought against each step of the process, beginning with an unfounded assertion that they were not required to prove any need for the mining materials other than their own statement saying so. The Deputy Supervisor characterized at least one Stoneco attorney as “a bully who acts inappropriately when he shows up to speak at meetings.” He says Stoneco has, “threatened to take us to court since day one.”
In their suit, Stoneco, whose parent company recorded $26 billion dollars in revenue in 2020, claims that Sharon Township’s zoning ordinance requires a “lengthy and expensive application process” and is “designed to prevent gravel mining…” Stoneco also claims that by considering the “level” of need in their determination related to very serious consequences, Sharon Township violated their property ownership rights. Stoneco’s attorney of record for the case is Michael Hindelang of Honigman LLC in Detroit. When contacted, Mr. Hindelang responded that they would not comment on pending litigation.
Psarouthakis denies that any part of Sharon Township’s ordinance is designed to prevent gravel mining and points to the fact that there is already a mine operating in Sharon Township with whom the township has a positive working relationship. In fact, the importance of mineral extraction is included in the township’s master plan, updated in October 2020.
It seems many of Sharon Township’s residents agree with the decision to deny Stoneco’s SLU application. The Sharon Preservation Society is a local organization, “Founded to inform Sharon Township residents about issues that impact our health, safety, welfare, or property values.” A representative for the organization, Barbara Schmid, said, “Sharon Preservation Society believes that township residents have demonstrated their support for the township's decision to deny the permit - that's evident in the number of petition signatures we provided. (see SIGN OUR PETITION! - Sharon Preservation Society) It's the right thing to do. Residents here believe that, even under the applicant's repeated threats of a lawsuit.”
Psarouthakis says the next step is currently under discussion between the township and its advisors and counsel. Legally, the township has 21 days to respond to Stoneco’s filing but due to the extensive amount of documentation involved, there is likely to be a request for an extension.
The lawsuit could have a devastating financial impact on the community of fewer than 3,000 residents. However, Psarouthakis maintains that the township has a duty to protect the health, welfare, and safety of the residents and because Stoneco was not able to guarantee that there would be no very serious consequences related to their mining operation, the township had no choice but to deny the application.
The small but experienced township staff is prepared to challenge the corporate behemoth’s allegations. While they maintain insurance to cover costs associated with unfortunate incidents just like this, the Chairperson of Sharon Township’s Planning Commission, Pat Kelly, says the real key to a successful challenge of the suit comes from the township’s demonstrable adherence to the appropriate ordinances and its meticulous documentation of the timeline and process so far.
A comprehensive understanding of Sharon Township’s decision can be found in their Finding of Facts and Motion.