A step forward and a nod back

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 3, 2018

 Fallen tree branches, fences and other debris littered roads on 13 Mile Road in Beverly Hills and around the Eagle’s  coverage area after a major windstorm in March.

Fallen tree branches, fences and other debris littered roads on 13 Mile Road in Beverly Hills and around the Eagle’s coverage area after a major windstorm in March.

File photo by Tiffany Esshaki

The year 2017 blew in like a lion —  with a record-breaking windstorm in the early spring — and blew out this week with bitter-cold temperatures.

Just like Mother Nature, the past year has been full of ups and downs. Though we’ve already clinked our glasses and welcomed in 2018, let’s take one last look back at some of the stories from the Eagle’s coverage area.


Record-breaking windstorm, water main break wreak havoc
On March 8, what was expected to be a day of high winds turned out to be one of the most powerful windstorms the state has ever seen, reaching speeds of nearly 60 mph.

Efforts to clean up the damage included clearing more than 600 trees from blocked roadways across Oakland County, repairing 150 broken traffic signals, and the restoration of power to 800,000 Michigan customers impacted by what DTE Energy said was the single worst outage in its 100-year history. Some were without power for more than a week.

“We’re always trying to improve our infrastructure and grid, but we couldn’t have predicted this if we had wanted to,” RoNeisha Mullen, a spokesperson for DTE, said just after the storm. “It was worse than we’ve ever experienced before.”

Recently, DTE Energy Manager of Corporate Communications Randi Berris said the utility reflected on the storm to see where improvements could be made, including installing new utility poles, upgrading circuits and cables, installing smart sensors and other technology, and further tree trimming to reduce the number of customers who experience power outages that are tree-related, which account for roughly two-thirds of complaints.

“While we cannot control extreme weather, we are taking significant steps to help reduce the impact on our system. DTE Energy is committed to delivering the reliability and peace of mind that our customers expect — and to building an electric grid that meets the needs of the 21st-century economy,” Berris said in an email.

Then, on Oct. 23, a water main on 14 Mile Road, between Farmington and Drake roads, broke and left 12 neighboring communities without water security for several days.

Residents were advised to boil water at home to sanitize tap water while the pressure was low, and residents in Bloomfield Township were able to pick up bottled water at the Bloomfield Township Senior Center.

“We’re up to about 30 or 40 pallets of water we’ve given away,” Public Works Director Tom Trice said during the water crisis. “I started calling Costco stores and Sam’s Club stores Monday night to see where we could start getting water, because when you have a break of this magnitude, you have to prepare for that.”

About 25,000 12-ounce bottles and 400 gallons of bulk water were trucked into Bloomfield Hills Schools so classes could go on as scheduled.

The main, which broke on a Monday evening, took several days to repair, but most of the township had its water safely restored by that Friday.

I-75 overhaul kicks off in Bloomfield Township
The summer of 2017 saw the first portion of the infamous Interstate 75 modernization project get underway in Bloomfield Township and Auburn Hills.

The Michigan Department of Transportation started the northernmost portion of the project, redesigning the interchange at I-75 and Square Lake Road, realigning the roads and making the entrance and exit ramps safer by swapping them to the right side.

Rob Morosi, from the MDOT office of communications, said drivers seemed to be pleased with the redesign, but not surprisingly, they felt inconvenienced with the construction causing delays on the major motorway.

The headache was made worse for many by the thought that the 18-mile project, running from Coolidge Highway to Square Lake Road, would take another 10 years to complete.

Until MDOT had an idea: The construction could be accelerated with more money, and entering into a public-private partnership, or P3, could fund the work immediately and allow the lender to be paid back over time with the tax dollars earmarked for the project over the course of several years.

If all goes according to plan, Morosi said in September, statements of qualifications from contractors will be reviewed and a contract for the north portion of the I-75 modernization project could be awarded by summer 2018, followed in the fall by a contract for the southern portion.

Rizzo CEO comes under fire for bribery, embezzlement
In 2016, municipalities under contract with Rizzo Environmental Services distanced themselves from the company when it became the focus of a bribery scandal, with allegations from the FBI of paying thousands of dollars to government officials all over metro Detroit to secure public hauling contracts.

The embezzlement charges stem from allegations that Charles P. Rizzo stole money from the company to pay for part of the construction costs of his Bloomfield Hills mansion.

In May, the former CEO of the garbage hauler, Charles B. “Chuck” Rizzo, 46, of Bloomfield Hills, was indicted on five counts of bribery and three counts of conspiracy to commit bribery. He pleaded guilty to the charges Nov. 9.

Also indicted were his father, Charles P. Rizzo, 70, of New Baltimore, and Derrick Hicks, 47, of Bloomfield Hills, on charges of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.

Rizzo Jr.’s attorney — Thomas Green, of Sidley Law in Washington, D.C. — did not respond to requests for comment in regard to his client’s plea deal. The company was purchased by and now operates as Green for Life, or GFL.


Eagle area impacted by nationwide opioid epidemic
This past year, headlines were once again packed with news of overdoses and deaths caused by the country’s struggle with opioid prescription painkillers and heroin.
One notable instance was the June 6 death of 17-year-old Stefan DeClerck, a Cranbrook Kingswood student from California who died of a toxic dose of furanyl fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

The student was found by school personnel the following morning when he failed to show up for an exam.

Law enforcement personnel, lawmakers, and local and state officials have been grappling with the growing opioid problem for years, and 2017 saw major efforts to combat the abuse of the drugs.

At the beginning of the year, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signed into law bills that made lifesaving overdose reversal drugs available at pharmacies across Michigan without a prescription, allowing more people to access antagonists like Narcan in hopes of saving more lives in the event of an opioid overdose.

Calley is chair of the Michigan Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force, formed in 2015, which estimates that more than 45 people die of an opioid overdose each day.

The move was endorsed by the Oakland Community Health Network and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, which has been using the drug on overdose calls for more than a year.

“How many lives saved does it require for this program to be considered successful? I say if you are a friend or family member … one,” OCHN Executive Director and CEO Willie Brooks said in an email. “Every life saved from an overdose with the use of Narcan is an opportunity to link people to treatment and to recovery. New legislation allowing pharmacists to put this extraordinary medication in the hands of families whose loved ones have a substance use disorder enables them to react quickly during a crisis situation until first responders arrive.”

While reversal drugs became easier to get, opioids and other drugs became a bit harder to come by. Pharmacists in Oakland County cracked down on “smurfing” this year with a real-time network devoted to tracking and preventing the sale of pseudoephedrine to those who might use it to make methamphetamine or sell it to someone who will.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson joined with Wayne County Executive Warren Evans in October to file a joint lawsuit against multiple drug manufacturers and distributors that they believe to be in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in the sale, promotion and monitoring of opioid prescriptions.

Just a few weeks later, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard announced the takedown of 12 local individuals accused of selling heroin mixed with deadly fentanyl as part of a major drug ring in Pontiac. The bust was substantial, since police believed they had evidence to link the suspects directly to opioid-related deaths, allowing prosecutors to charge them with homicide.

City defines ‘personal services’ for downtown
Landlords of buildings in downtown Birmingham got fired up this past spring when the Birmingham City Commission discussed tightening up the restrictions on what types of businesses can occupy first-floor spaces in the major retail areas, also known as the Redline Retail District.

“Recently, what we’ve seen is a trend in office uses being permitted in those first-floor spaces under the provision of the ordinance that includes personal services as retail,” City Manager Joe Valentine said previously. “But the ordinance doesn’t define personal services.”

Worried that an influx of office space could take over the city’s downtown and hinder walkability and traffic, Valentine said, the City Commission directed the Planning Board to enact a temporary measure to prevent further office-type businesses from moving into downtown until the ordinance could be more clearly defined to outline what kinds of businesses would be allowed to occupy vacancies downtown.

But landlords like Daniel Jacob, vice president of brokerage at Indigo Centers in Birmingham, said further restricting what kinds of tenants would be allowed in the Redline Retail District — which lines Old Woodward Avenue and intersects Maple Road, branching off at Willits, Bates, Martin, Merrill and Brown streets — means turning away businesses and potentially letting vacancies sit unfilled for extended periods of time.

“To limit what can go into the first floor to product-only retail, which is already struggling, would be detrimental,” he said in June.

The Planning Board and the City Commission both held public hearings on the matter, which drew numerous landlords to denounce the plan, though some business owners — like Karen Daskas, of Tender, and Richard Astrein, of Astrein Jewelers — were in favor of the restrictions.

In the end, the City Commission voted 4-3 Nov. 13 to amend the city ordinance to define personal services as an establishment that’s open to the public and engaged primarily in provided services directly to individual customers, including but not limited to personal care services, services for the care of apparel and other items, but not including business services like medical, dental or mental health practices. Commissioners Carol DeWeese, Rackeline Hoff and Pierre Boutros all voted against the amendment. DeWeese expressed concern that the proposed definition for personal services didn’t sufficiently exclude office-like businesses, while Hoff and Boutros thought a trial period and further study of the restrictions would be preferable to an immediate amendment to the ordinance.

Further study of the Redline Retail District is expected from the Planning Board to revisit concerns expressed during the public hearings.


Schools feature new leaders, growth
Two prominent local schools saw a changing of the guard in 2017. Cranbrook Schools Director of Schools Arlyce Seibert and Bloomfield Hills Schools Board of Education President Ingrid Day both retired.

Seibert, director of schools — a position similar to superintendent — since 1995, is succeeded by Aimeclaire Lambert Roche, who comes from the Bishop’s School in La Jolla, California, where she was the head of school as well as president of the board of directors at the California Association of Independent Schools. Day’s position, which she had held since 2007, was taken over by sitting board member Cynthia von Oeyen, and her vacant seat on the board was filled by Jason Paulateer.

The Roeper School, Detroit Country Day School and Birmingham Public Schools all unveiled new expansions and improvements this year. Roeper’s Birmingham campus added a revamped library, small breakout and study rooms, a digital learning and remote education classroom, additional technology resources, and a new commons area. Country Day is adding 50,000 square feet to its middle school as part of an ongoing master plan, which includes consolidating Country Day’s lower and junior schools and adding theater resources in the upper school. BPS officials said they are making several changes in the district’s various buildings, including redesigning several entrances for better safety, working on heating and cooling systems, upgrading technology, and renovating the Groves High School auditorium.

FIRST Robotics teams the Bionic Blackhawks, of Bloomfield Hills High School, and Las Guerrillas, of the International Academy, banded together with the Killer Bees, of Notre Dame Preparatory School and Marist Academy in Pontiac, in the final round of the Michigan state championship at Saginaw Valley State University April 15 to win and proceed to the world competition, which took place April 26-29 in St. Louis. It was the latest achievement for both schools, which each have a strong history of success in the field of competitive robotics. The Blackhawks also received the Chairman’s Award, which is the highest honor at the competition.

Staff Writer Brendan Losinski contributed to this report.