Michigan LCV Analysis

This case established that the Hazardous Waste Management Act (HWMA) did not exempt a proposed hazardous waste treatment plant from local township zoning regulations. By finding that the township did not have to allow the plant, it preserved local authority to prevent the placement of a facility which would bring hazardous waste and air pollution into the township.

Case Summary

Stablex Corporation sued Groveland Township for rejecting its plan to process hazardous waste on its property, which was zoned for extracting minerals. Stablex argued that the Michigan Legislature intended the Michigan Hazardous Waste Management Act (MHWMA) to preempt local zoning ordinances that prohibit hazardous waste disposal facilities. The Michigan Supreme Court held that the MHWMA did not prevent Groveland Township from enforcing its local zoning ordinance and barring Stablex from building a hazardous waste processing facility on its property.

What Happened

Donald and Stuart Jennings mined gravel on their property in Groveland Township, which allegedly violated the town’s zoning ordinances. After Groveland sued to stop the mining, the Jenningses negotiated an agreement with the township that said that the property was subject to zoning regulation by the township and set terms for future restoration of the property.

In 1984, Stablex Corporation purchased the property from the Jennings. At this point, most of the property was zoned for extracting minerals. After purchasing the property, Stablex put forward a plan to clean up the property by processing hazardous waste on site, using the processed waste to fill holes on the property, and later farming Christmas trees on the reclaimed land. The township’s Planning Commission rejected the plan, because the property was not zoned for the uses that Stablex had proposed.

Stablex sought a court order to stop the township from interfering with Stablex’s plan to use the property. The trial court ordered the township to accept the plan because its previous agreement with the Jenningses had required that the mined property be filled and reclaimed. It did not make sense to the trial court for the township to now say that these activities were barred by its zoning ordinances. The Court of Appeals reversed, interpreting the agreement to bar Stablex from processing hazardous waste on the property because this would violate the zoning ordinance.

Court Decision

The Court (Justice Kavanagh, joined by Chief Justice Williams and Justices Cavanagh, Brickley, Ryan, and Boyle) held that the MHWMA did not preempt a local ordinance prohibiting the construction of a hazardous waste disposal facility at a particular location. In other words, the MHWA did not block or replace the local ordinance. The Court rejected Stablex’s argument that Section 16 of the MHWMA, which says that a “disposal facility” that existed when the Act was passed would not be subject to administrative review at the state level unless the owners decided to change or expand its uses, meant that Stablex’s property was also not subject to local regulations. After deciding that the property was subject to the township’s zoning ordinances, the Court decided that these ordinances barred Stablex from building a hazardous waste processing facility on the property.

Justice Levin wrote a concurring opinion in which he noted that Section 16 was passed by the Legislature to help a different company, Upjohn, satisfy federal requirements for a planned hazardous waste disposal facility by a certain date. Upjohn would not have been able to satisfy the federal requirements by the required date if it first had to go before a state site approval board. Based on this legislative history, Justice Levin wanted more information about the Upjohn case because he thought it might shed light on how Section 16 should be interpreted.

Please remember that rulings in environmental cases are often based on non-environmental factors. The University of Michigan Law School did not participate in the rating process and takes no position regarding support or opposition for any judicial candidates.