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Wednesday, July 31,2013

Reining in the rain gardens

A closer look at the maintenance of the Michigan Avenue rain gardens

by Sam Inglot
Tim O’Rourke, one of the co-owners of Stober’s Bar on East Michigan Avenue, is frustrated. The city of Lansing rain garden outside his business — which he didn’t build and isn’t responsible for maintaining — has to be cared for by his employees because no one else will. 

Maintenance of the 43 rain gardens on Michigan and 12 on Washington Square falls largely on volunteers or organizations that “adopt” them. And if they don’t maintain them, a part-time employee with Downtown Lansing Inc. — which operates with the help of a roughly $40,000 annual city subsidy — is to pick up the slack.

The rain garden outside Stober’s is supposed to be “beautifully maintained” by Fifth Third Bank, according to a plaque in the overgrown basin. But the owners and manager of Stober’s say they’ve only seen one person working on it this year. They’re not even sure it was a Fifth Third employee. 

Stober’s employees have had to remove a lot of trash over the years from the rain gardens, which shouldn’t be their responsibility, said manager Rene Frailey. She said she had to buy a fish net to scoop the trash out. 

O’Rourke likes the concept of rain gardens, which is to filter storm water through a system of dirt, sand and plant roots to help clean the water before it is discharged into the river. But he wishes more maintenance was done by those who have pledged to do it. 

A spokesperson for Fifth Third could not be reached for comment.

“There’s no way we would send our employees into there” to weed or pick up trash, O’Rourke said, speaking to the fact that to clean the rain garden properly, you’d have to jump over a three-foot fence and down into the basin. Without an easier way to access the rain garden, he said he couldn’t risk the liability of having an employee clean it out. 

Access to the rain gardens is also a concern for Brian Caskey, owner of Classic Barber Shop, 810 E. Michigan Ave., next door to Stober’s. 

Caskey adopted the rain garden outside of his business about a month ago because the former sponsor, also Fifth Third Bank, was not maintaining it, he said. The shoddy shape of the rain garden reflected poorly on his business, so he adopted the garden himself.  

But cleaning the rain garden isn’t exactly convenient, Caskey said, echoing O’Rourke’s concern. He said getting into the basin isn’t easy and wishes the city would give him a way to open the fence for easier access. 

On Friday, Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann — who led the effort to create the rain gardens — said about half of the rain gardens on Michigan Avenue looked like they were overdue for maintenance and several were in “serious need” of attention. He said he could see invasive plants and grasses sprouting up in several of the gardens, which he said can interrupt the filtration system. 

“If the goal is to extract pollution and improve the river, maintenance is vital,” he said. “Lack of maintenance is a factor in long term failure.”

The rain gardens were built in 2008 with $1 million in grant money, said Lansing Chief Operations Officer Chad Gamble. He said the city does “infrequent” maintenance, but it does replant flowers twice every year in the spring and fall. 

Downtown Lansing Inc. is in charge of overseeing maintenance of the rain gardens, which is done mostly by volunteers. It trains volunteers on how to clean the basins. 

Troy Anderson has been the part-time adopt-a-spot coordinator since May. Adopt-a-spot is a program in which individuals, businesses and organizations can adopt rain gardens and be responsible for maintaining them. Routine maintenance includes removing trash, pulling weeds, watering, replanting, mulching and trimming, Anderson said in an email. But if it’s not done by volunteers, the responsibility falls on him. He's still out every week getting his hands dirty in the gardens. 

Anderson said there are 65 volunteer groups that help with maintenance. He said so far this season, 170 volunteer hours have been logged and 3,400 gallons of trash have been removed. 

Anderson said it’s recommended that groups who adopt rain gardens perform maintenance every other week, but there’s no required time commitment. 

The idea that the rain gardens can be completely maintained by volunteers is something that O’Rourke sees as problematic. He only needs to look out the front door of his bar to see that it’s not working. He and Caskey both think the city should take more responsibility for maintaining the rain gardens. 

“I think (the city) should be responsible for them,” Caskey said. “They put them out there. It seems like they’re having problems with no one doing they’re part, so they should just take over.”

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