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Homeowners scrub up after sprawl

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Probably nothing exemplifies the human costs of unchecked suburban growth more than the tide of raw sewage that backs up each year in hundreds of Detroit-area homes, such as the one Lee and JoAnn Shirley own.

The Shirleys raised five children in a handsome home they bought in 1961 along Ecorse Creek in Dearborn Heights. The home included a finished basement that is now ruined because of municipal sewage that, since 1969, has oozed up in the basement drain, toilet and sink when rains flood wastewater pipes in the area.

At least three times, including last September, the Shirleys have pulled on boots and gloves and spent hours scrubbing the mess and stink out of their home. They’re not the only ones. Last September’s flood spilled sewage into more than 500 Dearborn Heights basements.

“It just comes at you as raw sewage,” said JoAnn Shirley. “You have crap on your floor. It’s awful.”

Shirley said the frequency of the flooding seems to be increasing. Dearborn Heights officials say it’s because neighboring, upstream communities continue to pave over fields and fill in wetlands, which increases the storm water runoff that floods the pipes. Dearborn Heights’ upstream neighbors have yet to join a regional effort to reduce sewage overflows by protecting naturally absorbent, open land.

Shirley believes it’s time for some local governmental action. “Every time the water comes up in the streets and the creek gets full, I start bringing things upstairs. My husband takes out the washer and dryer and puts them in the garage,” she said. “We’re getting older and this is more than an inconvenience at this point.”

Keith Schneider helped found the Michigan Land Use Institute in 1995 and is now its program director. A former national correspondent for the New York Times, he lives near Thompsonville in Benzie County.

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