Hantz Farms Deal Postponed Until Special December Council Session

A vacant home is shown in Detroit, Wednesday, July 27, 2011. Detroit’s mayor unveiled a plan that could determine what the ci
A vacant home is shown in Detroit, Wednesday, July 27, 2011. Detroit’s mayor unveiled a plan that could determine what the city looks like as it fights for vitality, announcing that neighborhoods will receive different kinds of services depending on the condition of homes, how many people live there and the level of blight. His plan isn’t really about shrinking Detroit _ the 139-square-mile city’s boundaries aren’t receding. He instead wants to encourage redistribution of what’s left of Detroit’s population into areas where people still live, where houses aren’t about to cave in and where the city’s scant resources won’t be spread dangerously thin. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Detroit City Council tabled discussion over the proposed sale of an enormous plot of city-owned land to the Hantz Farms development company at a marathon pre-Thanksgiving council session Tuesday, finally allowing for a public hearing on the controversial urban agriculture deal.

If approved, the purchase of roughly 140 acres of land on the city's east side by financial services magnate John Hantz would be the largest such deal in Detroit's history.

The proposed area lies roughly between Van Dyke and St. Jean Street and Jefferson and Mack Avenue. Through a subdivision of his company called Hantz Woodlands, the businessman is seeking to transform the area into a mixed hardwoods timber farm, pending the approval of a new city urban agriculture ordinance. He has also indicated a willingness to purchase and maintain the land, simply in order to make the area more livable.

Under the proposed agreement, the city is offering to sell the land to Hantz Woodlands at slightly over 8 cents per square foot, provided they maintain the land, demolish a number of derelict buildings and plant 15,000 trees.

Although councilmembers Saunteel Jenkins, Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and Gary Brown pushed for an immediate vote, the body as a whole eventually decided to postpone further discussion until a special Dec. 11 council session, allowing time for a public hearing on the matter. No regular public council meetings are scheduled from Nov. 21 to Jan. 7 due to a holiday recess.

Tuesday's meeting also included contentious debates over a $300,000 city contract with the law firm Miller Canfield and the future of the city's water department. It attracted throngs of Detroiters interested sharing their thoughts with council.

Although many were turned away at the door, a sizable crowd lingered outside council chambers over an hour after the start of the meeting, chanting to be let in. Chastised by Councilwoman Joann Watson and members of the public for not holding the meeting in the auditorium, Council President Charles Pugh said that room was booked -- though he later confessed he was also concerned about avoiding interruptions.

Nearly all the citizens present were against the deal. In their comments they voiced concerns about a perceived lack of transparency around the deal and that Hantz was given preferential treatment because of his wealth.

"I'm very concerned by the precedent this sets," said Detroiter Shane Bernardo. "Members of Hantz Woodlands have been able to circumvent the process that many others of our city have to follow. The scale of this land grab should be of some concern to everyone in this room."

At the request of council's Planning and Economic Development Committee, which moved the measure forward last week, the deal was rewritten from a simple purchase agreement to a development agreement for Tuesday's meeting. A reverter clause was also added allowing the city to back out if certain terms were not followed.

Nevertheless, many council members had qualms about the deal and the perceived rush by the Bing administration to move ahead with approving it. When asked about the plan's urgency, Robert Anderson, Director of the City's Planning and Development Department, told council that developers wanted to move on the deal before the end of the year so they wouldn't miss out on tree planting season.

Councilman Kwame Kenyatta strongly opposed the measure, indicating that he felt the city would be selling itself short with the deal.

"This city is pregnant with progress. This city is pregnant with a future," he said. "It seems like we're the only ones who don't see that."

Council President Charles Pugh and fellow councilman James Tate were somewhat supportive of the deal, but each expressed reservations. Pugh said he was concerned about a provision that would give Hantz Farms an opportunity to add additional properties around the development area. Tate felt there needed to be a public hearing to listen to the concerns of people in the affected area.

Members of the council also raised questions about low agricultural tax rates and a two-year limit on the agreement's reverter clause. Some also felt the vote should wait until after a Dec. 6 public hearing on an urban agriculture ordinance that might affect Hantz Woodlands ability to commercially harvest lumber.

Although Councilman Cockrel was unsuccessful in his effort to bring the agreement up for an immediate vote, he voiced concern about the impact that the debate around it might have on other potential investors.

"The one thing that been kind of frankly distressing about a lot the dialogue surrounding this [is] it almost has this class warfare aspect to it," he said. "The reality is, if we really truly do want to redevelop this city and move it forward, don't we want to also welcome people who have more than a few bucks in their wallet into the city?"