Island Lake of Novi is a master planned community built on 901 acres in the heart of the city of Novi, with its own 170-acre lake, five miles of shoreline, a marina, parks, miles of carefully curated walking trails, boat docks, pools, tennis courts, and numerous other amenities, along with 876 two-story semi-custom homes. At first glance, it looks like it was designed around nature's best features.
In a way it was. Only it was planned to be that way, as part of a reclamation project following decades first as a gravel mine, belching forth gravel, aggregate and sand that was used in community roads, bridges, sewer pipes, for the foundations of buildings and homes, and other infrastructure uses.
“We mined it from the 1960s through the 1980s, and then Toll Brothers built 800-some homes in a master planned community,” said Steve Weiner, vice president of real estate and environmental, Edward C. Levy Company. “You just don't find pieces of property with 800 to 1,000 acres. Maybe you see that in Texas or Florida, but you don't in Michigan. We're blessed to have that much land. It's marvelous – it's the most successful master planned community in Oakland County.”
A community's natural resources are so valuable they can be worth their weight in gold. In Michigan, notably southeastern Michigan and Oakland County, we are sitting upon one of the world's largest veins of gravel, formed thousands and thousands of years ago.
The Pleistocene era, more commonly known as the Ice Age, came to a close about 11,000 years ago as glaciers, which had come down as far forward as Michigan and Indiana, melted away, and left veins of sand, gravel and clay in their wake deep underground.
As ice sheets melted and receded, they left behind deposits of peat and forest beds 15 feet thick, and rivers, lakes and streams, as well as the Great Lakes themselves. Beneath the surface, a thick cover of glacial drift protected layers of sediment, sand and gravel.
“That outwash material, the glacial till or sediment that’s been carried by melt water, can be very good for sand or gravel,” said Peter Rose, geologist with the Office of Minerals Management at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
A component of concrete, along with sand, water and cement, gravel is a central part of infrastructure, from roads to bridges, sewers and pipes, buildings to housing developments, and luckily for the the metro area, Oakland County and Livingston County rest upon one of the largest gravel deposits in the world. As it happens, northern Oakland County sits upon the second largest source of gravel mining in the United States.
The majority of the state was covered by glaciers, said Rose, noting that after the melt, “Oakland County is a mixture of moraines and outwash, whereas in the Thumb (of Michigan) you get more lake sediments, you can get more clay. But sand and gravel is common to moraines and outwash, so there are big sand and gravel operations in Oakland County.”
A moraine is a deposit at the base of a glacier and getting collected by the melted water, the sediment is transported in streams. “These aren’t wide meandering streams, like you see today, these would be more braided streams, like what’s downstream from glaciers in Alaska and places today,” said Rose. “They’re not necessarily uniformly good for gravel. There are pockets that would be ideal, so it requires explorations, drilling and test pits.”
“Mining has been the building blocks, the cornerstone of civilization for thousands of years,” Weiner noted. “Steel, iron, gold, silver, copper. We do it here in Michigan, and in every country in the world. The way to determine where to mine is to drill deep into the ground, because veins can be sandwiched deep into the ground, part of the glacial till. So you drill a bunch of holes in the ground, every three to five feet, to source it initially, and put that information into a computer to determine its viability, and determine the quality of the materials, because you have to meet certain specifications.”
Weiner noted veins of natural aggregate, made up of sand and gravel, can be made up of very fine sand all the way up to pea gravel or boulders. “We also measure the hardness and angularities. Angular stones will stay in one place.
“We also look for how clean the material is,” Weiner explained, noting that thousands and thousands of years of other organic materials, such as decayed trees, dead and decayed animals, and other items have been pushed away by melting glaciers. “We have to wash it all away, as well as clay, which is a binder. It all must be clean to use.”
Over the decades, gravel mines have been created all over the state, from the northern coast of the mitt, along Lake Michigan and in the Upper Peninsula, to mines scattered around southeast Michigan and Oakland County, in Highland Township, Groveland Township, Brighton, Holly, Green Oak Township, S. Lyon, Hartland, Oxford, and Springfield Township. Throughout the state, some gravel mines have been dug on state land; others, on private property. In Oakland County, all of the active mines are privately owned and on private property.
The permitting process is different if a mine is on state land, versus on private land in a municipality. If a gravel mine is leased on land from the state, permitting for that mine goes through through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Office of Minerals Management. It requires a reclamation plan before the lease will be granted. The initial lease runs for seven years, and upon expiration, the lessee can apply for an extension. “When they’re done mining, and before the lease expires, they’re supposed to reclaim the pit. It’s up to us to monitor that and require that,” said Rose, geologist with the DNR. But all gravel mines in Michigan built and reclaimed on private property are permitted by local zoning ordinances.
“Mining for gravel in southeast Michigan is a very benign exercise. It's not an environmental hazard in any way, because it's just taking a natural resource for construction,” Weiner asserted. “If something (natural) hasn't been grown, it's been mined. We do cut down trees, but we plant new ones. We're regulated to not threaten endangered species, for wetlands, for protected species. Our industry is regulated, and equipment is maintained.”
They even create new topography, by digging deep into the water table and tapping into aquifers, and new lakes arise. If a lake of a certain size will be created in the process of a gravel mining operation, or if there will be excavation in or near a wetland, the operator needs additional permits from the DEQ’s Water Resources Permits Division. Governed by the wetlands statute, “the first preference is not to disturb the wetland, but if that’s the only option for operation, they’ll need to do offsetting activities, preserve or protect (other) existing wetlands,” said Hal Fitch, chief of the Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals at the DEQ. Fitch, noted that the office does not regulate gravel mining, as they do with iron, copper and other mining operations. “Gravel operations may need air quality permits; it has the potential for creating dust,” which is one reason why some communities fight against them.
Doug Needham, president of Michigan Aggregates Association, a non-profit organization, concurred, “There are no environmental issues (in mining). We are heavily regulated by the state and nationally, and we strive very hard to meet and comply with all regulations. There don't seem to be issues. Mines have to get air quality permits and water discharge permits from the DEQ, and the National Pollutants Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), covers national issues.” The NPDES, created in 1972 by the Clean Water Act, is an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program authorizing state governments to permit and regulate point source groundwater.
Rick Rusz, chief of groundwater permits for DEQ, said, “Permits are issued every five years for gravel mines. They wash sand or gravel on the site. We do not consider it very problematic as they follow all the rules.”
Rusz said washwater is done without any additives, and is then put back into the mine. They must maintain a log displaying the amount of water they have discharged; and they are not permitted to discharge water on any other site. “In this way, they're using clean water and putting clean water back into the mine, and no groundwater is contaminated during gravel mining when these permitting procedures are followed.”
While southeast Michigan has “good quality aggregates left behind by the glacial retreat, accessibility to it is difficult due to urban sprawl, with subdivisions, buildings and roadways built on top of it, making access to it very difficult,” Needham said. “Once it's covered, there's no way to get to it.”
A primary local use for gravel, once mined, is for road construction. To pave one mile long four-lane roadway, it takes 85,000 tons of gravel – meaning literally tons of gravel are moved and used when are roads are reconstructed. Because there are gravel mines in Oakland County and southeastern Michigan, it helps to reduce the costs for road projects to local municipalities and the Road Commission of Oakland County (RCOC), as well as Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). MDOT purchases at least one million tons of gravel per year, and Jeff Cranston, MDOT director of communications, said its costs have increased 40 percent in the last 10 years.
“It's very costly to move it. It's highly transportable, and it's often more expensive to move it, so if it's local, it's easier to use,” said Weiner of the Edward C. Levy Company.
“(Gravel) averages about $10 a ton, but we go through over 20,000 tons in a season,” used for patching and filling the shoulders of roads maintained by the county, said Shelly Foreman, purchasing agent for the Road Commission of Oakland County (RCOC). On top of the 20,000 tons, the county incurs an additional expense for gravel in order to reapply a layer to the county’s 800 miles of gravel roads. “A trucking company would come out and spread three to four inches of gravel over miles of road, and then there’s a road grader there to smooth it out,” said Jay Carter, RCOC maintenance operations engineer.
Currently, there are major road projects in Bloomfield Township on Big Beaver Road from Woodward to Adams, which is closed until November; Maple between Southfield and Cranbrook will soon be closed for repavement in Birmingham; numerous streets are being repaved in Rochester Hills and Bloomfield Hills; while the South Boulevard/ Rochester Road intersection is being rebuilt.
Although, relative to other mineral commodities, gravel is cheap, the cost adds up in the transport of the material. The rule of thumb is that for every 30 miles the gravel is hauled, the price doubles, said Fitch of the Office of Oil, Gas, and Minerals. As taxpayers who foot the bill for the road commission, Oakland County residents benefit financially from sitting on a plethora of gravel.
“If you have a project in Detroit proper, and have to go to a suburban area to find a gravel supply, (the price) multiplies up pretty quickly. Big modern buildings have a lot of concrete in them, and that takes a lot of sand and gravel, so the demand will remain,” Fitch said. But “it’s getting more and more difficult to find sources close to the project. If some township wants to prevent sand and gravel mining, then the company will have to go that much further out, so it’s more cost for the infrastructure. It adds to our tax burden. And, it’s more trucking, and those (trucks) add the carbon load, you’re burning diesel and putting out carbon dioxide. And the impact to the roads themselves, the further you have to truck it, the more impact there’s going to be,” said Fitch.
Resident opposition is the biggest issue currently facing gravel mining. “The biggest challenge we have is communities' willingness to welcome mining into their communities,” Needham said. “The existing mines have a limited supply in their pits. Some of our existing mines are running out of reserves, and need to look for new mines. Several of the communities that have the resources, they've made it difficult to gain access, or have put up road blocks to rezoning for the pits.”
Several communities are halting privately-owned enterprises from operating, listening to resident opposition characterized by the sentiment “not in my backyard,” often known by the acronym NIMBY. Yet, these municipalities are in direct violation of a law passed by the state legislature, the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (Public Act 110), which precludes local municipalities from denying gravel mine operations as long as they follow local zoning ordinances. The act became effective in July of 2006, and states, “An ordinance shall not prevent the extraction, by mining, of valuable natural resources from any property unless very serious consequences would result from the extraction of those natural resources. Natural resources shall be considered valuable… if a person… can receive revenue and reasonably expect to operate a profit.” Public Act 113, passed in 2011, takes it a step further, stating, “A county or township shall not regulate or control the drilling, completion, or operation of oil or gas wells or other wells drilled for oil or gas exploration purposes and shall not have jurisdiction with reference to the issuance of permits for the location, drilling, completion, operation, or abandonment of such wells.”
Weiner of the Edward C. Levy Company said they will likely be the first company to test Public Act 113, probably later this year, for a proposed gravel mine in Metamora, on former Boy Scout camp grounds.
“We filed recently for a mine in Metamora, and the host community will fight it, and we'll have to go to court,” he said. “No one wants it in their community. They don't want the impact. The only impact we have are the trucks (when) we transport the gravel. But the roads they go on were built for that purpose. If the neighborhoods fight and say 'don't come near us,' and we have to go 10 miles out of our way, RCOC is going to have to pay more for roads, and builders will pay more to build homes.”
Metamora Township supervisor Dave Best did not respond to calls.
Highland Township also has a gravel mine, and requires a special use permit for the pit, which planning director Beth Corwin said places extra scrutiny on the project before approval was granted.
A public hearing was held on two occasions, once at the planning commission meeting and again at the township board meeting, and “in the case of the gravel mine we required hydrogeological studies, some marketing studies that showed the need for the product that they produce,” said Corwin, noting that proving a need in southeast Michigan for gravel isn’t a difficult task.
Before the mine, operated by American Aggregates of Michigan, Inc., a branch of Levy Indiana Slag Co., was permitted in the 1990s, Corwin said “they had to negotiate the haul routes, make sure the gravel trains – the big double trucks you see – are limited to Class A roads that can manage the weights. We looked at how they could mitigate impacts to the neighbors, like with big berms to contain noise and to screen the visual effects. We looked at the safety – how is it secured? A gravel mine is considered an attractive nuisance. Kids are drawn to the lakes that get created in mining, or they’re interested and curious about the equipment. People can get in trouble by trespassing.”
As mandated in the lease terms set out by the state, municipalities may require the company to submit a reclamation plan at the time of project approval. If mined appropriately, once the majority of valuable material has been collected, gravel pits can be transformed into subdivisions, parks, or other developments in place of what has became a deep hole in the earth.
Some local governments, like Highland Township, and the state when it leases mines, require a reclamation plan be prepared at the time the company is issued a permit to mine.
“They can’t just mine it out until it's not good for anything anymore,” said Corwin of Highland Township. “Brighton Township, in Livingston Township, has a lot of mines that were developed and in operation for decades, but they didn’t leave anything behind to work with. They’re just big holes in the ground. Whereas pits that are done with the idea that at the end you’ll have a residential use, they’re more careful about how they go about extracting the soil. If you take it all away and want to reuse the land, you have to bring something back, so the ones that start with the end in mind will approach it more carefully.”
Reclamation has been a key component to the success of Edward C. Levy Company's mining operations. “It's wonderful to have the second harvest – the adaptive uses, because when we go to the next community to get a permit you can show that you have created a tax-generating community,” Weiner explained. Island Lake of Novi is just one example, he said, where planning begins at early stages, for the adaptive reclamation.
“These projects often take 30, 40, 50 years. They take a lot of creative planning. You spend millions and millions of dollars to get these projects up and running, and look to service the market for a long time,” he said. “You mine, or dig, a lake, create for the after. We try to plan in 3-D, so we have a lake with a nice slope where we can have homes with walkout basements, and beautiful properties. We do creative earthmoving and grading, and often you leave a lot of natural resources behind.”
Rochester Hills has had numerous gravel mines.
"In the early ‘90s was the last gravel operation we had, that was Clear Creek – the area around Stoney Creek High School, those homes to east and north, it’s now a nice neighborhood of high value homes,” said Ed Anzek, Rochester Hills Planning Director. “(The mining) probably began in the ‘80s, and they started building homes in 1992. Elro Corporation did the development. I think the people who did the mining were also developers and they knew they had surplus materials they could remove and still maintain land for development."
Anzek noted that city engineers are required to do an analysis of all gravel and mining removal, “make sure there would be no damage to the aquifer, and (evaluate) dust, noise control, hours of operations. Then they would do a report to council and council would approve it or not, but it’s been a long time since we’ve done one of those."
American Aggregates has been permitted to mine a roughly 830-acre Highland site through 2025. At that time, the deep hole is slated for redevelopment as a community of 672 homes, accented by two lakes, which are frequently created in gravel mining as a result of digging until they reach the water table, or aquifer.
While the company is still mining the site in the area west of Fish Lake Road, the environment on the east side of the road, where mining operations have already been shut down, has been reclaimed, said Corwin.
“They’re done with mining, and it’s filled in with topsoil. Grass is growing; the lake is beautiful. Now we’re just waiting (for development). I’m sure the (surrounding) neighbors don’t care. They look out and see a lake and a field, and a nice piece of property. (American Aggregates) had a plan, and left what will be roads, so there will be a stable base. They didn’t go and try to get each last bucket of gravel out,” Corwin said.
A timeline for the housing development, which also includes a water system, currently remains unknown, but a likely first step is for American Aggregates to sell the land to a developer, as the company did with a previous 350-acre Milford site.
“They want to sell gravel – they don’t want to sell houses,” Corwin noted.
The Lakes of Milford, a residential development in the northwest corner of Milford, previously was a gravel mine also operated by American Aggregates, which was shut down in 1998 after its supply was exhausted. After Real Estate Investment Group designed the property, it was sold to Holtzman & Silverman Construction, then to national home builder Toll Brothers, and finally to single family owners of the newly-constructed houses.
“It’s a beautiful subdivision with four or five lakes,” said Don Green, township supervisor, of the site, which has been reclaimed and is generating revenue in property taxes, illustrating the best use of an abandoned mine.
Yet, in other instances, municipalities struggle with mine owners to come to an agreement that residents and officials can be satisfied with. A Milford mine that stopped operations in 2004, about a year or two before its permit expired, has remained a vacant hole ever since, said Green, noting that the last action involving the township took place a year-and-a-half ago.
“I’m not sure when they will break ground. We had a plan approved in front of us, and (the developer, Robertson Brothers Homes) had three items to satisfy before they could start construction. They have not satisfied the three issues,” Green said. Robertson Brothers could not be reached for comment.
“Many of these pits – we will have one operator, and they will stop using the pit, and then we’ll have someone else come in and continue mining, so it gets complicated on who is responsible for what reclamation. It’s something I don’t know if we’ve ever really sorted out, who’s liable, basically, for the earlier reclamation,” said the DNR's Rose. “You can’t make the company who didn’t do the earlier mining reclaim areas that a previous company did. There haven’t been any cases like that recently, but some of our legacy pits that are much older, that weren’t properly reclaimed, you can’t go back and try to track down a lessee from 20 years ago, or at least it’s difficult to do. It’s something I’ve struggled with since I arrived here, is how to tackle that situation.”
Currently, in Oakland County, there aren’t any active gravel mines under the supervision of the state, though there have been. The 71-site campground at Seven Lakes State Park, in Holly, is a former gravel mine.
Like the mine in Milford, half of the mine, within the 1,400-acre Seven Lakes State Park, was reclaimed before mining operations were completed. “It was interesting, back in the ‘90s, the campground was established and operating while the mining was still going on,” said Andrew Cole, park supervisor with the DNR. “People didn’t seem to mind, it was like that every weekend. We were full, just like we are now. That’s a spring fed lake that’s down there in the campground, and that lake was established when they made the gravel pit area. The original plan was (the campground) was going to be above the gravel pit, and then someone decided it was going to go in the gravel pit,” adjacent to the lakeshore. Cole said that sometime around 2002, the last of the gravel piles were removed, grass was planted on the hillsides, and engineers let the lake flood to about twice the size.
“The inevitable concern when you talk about a mining operation is that you are permanently removing a natural resource from below the surface of the ground. Sand, gravel, copper, oil, gas, and coal, it isn’t that different. You’re permanently removing something from below the surface for immediate use,” said Dr. Barry Rabe, a professor of Public Policy with the University of Michigan, and recipient of the 2006 Climate Protection Award from the EPA. “The global demand for gas and oil is different than the demand for gravel, but we’re talking about the removal of an asset base, of property, from the community, and what are the long-term environmental consequences of that?”