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Eric Lipson shares his vision for Ann Arbor if elected mayor

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Eric Lipson

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David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we are now just a day away from Election Day. I'm David Fair, and many of you have already filled out and returned your ballots. However, there are a good number of absentee ballots that have yet to be returned, and a lot of voters plan to head to their polling precincts tomorrow to vote in person. One of the matters Ann Arbor voters are deciding is the mayoral race. Two names appear on the ballot. And then, Dylan Manna is mounting a late-entry writing campaign. His name will not appear on the ballot. Earlier this morning, you heard from Mayor Christopher Taylor on WEMU. And if you missed the conversation with the incumbent Democrat, you can find it on our web site at WEMU dot org. Now we're going to hear from his challenger. Eric Lipson is a local attorney and self-proclaimed Democrat, but he appears on the ballot as an independent. Mr. Lipson, thank you for making time today.

Eric Lipson: Hey, David, thank you so much for having me on.

David Fair: Both you and Mayor Taylor have cited the climate crisis as the most pressing issue facing the community and the world as such. Are you advocating for continuing with the A2Zero plan and passage of the Community Climate Action Plan ballot proposal being decided by voters as we speak?

Eric Lipson: Well, David, you know, that is correct. Climate action is essential. Climate change is an existential problem. And I am in favor of continuing to do everything we can in that direction. I'm not convinced that adding more millages is the way to go, though, because we are just asking our citizens to pay when, in fact, we are not taking action as a council or the mayor to actually address the issues in more substantive ways in new development. We are asking people to retrofit their homes and pay new taxes when, in fact, we keep approving many, many developments that, in fact, exacerbate climate change and don't help it. So, we need to actually do what we say we're going to do and not just talk about it.

David Fair: Voters have final say on this particular Community Climate Action ballot proposal. If it passes and you win, how are you going to accommodate them?

Eric Lipson: By doing a lot of things. And, for example, all our problems are interconnected. Affordability is not addressed by allowing big developers to build luxury single-family homes and by clear cutting some of our most precious remaining woodlands within the city. So, taking real action, it would be preserving some of those. We have cut down 750 trees for the ironically-named Concord Pines on 20 acres on Earhart Road for single-family luxury development. That's got to stop. We could have purchased that property using the Greenbelt millage--existing funds, which we are not doing. So, again, these problems have to be addressed by council, not just giving free reign to developers. And another question, affordability. It's all connected.

David Fair: Right now, we're talking about the sustainability of the community. And, with that in mind, there is a really pressing issue. And that, of course, is the Gelman Sciences one-four dioxane plume. It continues to move toward the Huron River and Barton Pond, which supplies water to Ann Arbor residents. Again, both you and Mayor Taylor have identified it as a top priority. What would you do differently that is being done right now?

Eric Lipson: Well, I would press, as I have been for the past six years as a member of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, press much more vigorously, as Representative Dingell has assisted us in ,for EPA involvement in a Superfund site. Turn that into a Superfund site. The EPA has the ability, actually, to clean up, which we haven't been able to do, and to make the polluter pay. That's the key to EPA involvement. The current leadership has been dragging its feet for years and years and years and now says the EPA process will take years. Well, it will, but if we had started years ago, it would have been a fait accompli by now. The mayor has been dragging his feet and opposed EPA involvement. Instead, we've been litigating, and it's been useless litigation. All it's done, again, is enrich, in this case, the mayor's law firm to the tune of $500,000 representing Scio Township. And I don't think that's right. There's a conflict of interest there. And, again, it's proven useless because that case was just thrown out of court. The EPA is essential.

David Fair: You are an attorney, and you could remove yourself from that litigation and still have your firm collect money and represent a particular municipality's interest. Could you not?

Eric Lipson: I don't think you can. I think it's actually a clear conflict of interest. If the mayor is a partner in that law firm, he is still participating, and he is indirectly but still benefiting from that litigation. That's another reason why we also need conflict of interest and financial transparency for our elected leaders. We don't have that now.

David Fair: At this point, there is no violation of city ordinance. There is no violation of state measures.

Eric Lipson: Well, I'm not going to debate that with you. I'm just saying that, when the the mayor of the city, his law firm, is profiting from litigation, then I think that there's a question, and it's the appearance of conflict of interest. It doesn't have to violate a statute or an ordinance. It doesn't require a lawsuit. I think voters can make up their mind. And that's one of the issues that I want to raise.

David Fair: Any request for Superfund designation, getting back to Gelman Sciences, as you well know, would have to come from a request from the governor's office to the EPA. And, as you mentioned, it would take years, a decade, or more before that request is approved and enacted, and that remediation would begin--

Eric Lipson: Excuse me, David.

David Fair: Yeah.

Eric Lipson: Excuse me, David. It will not take a decade or more. The EPA has already begun investigating that, thanks to the CARD committee, or I should say, the coalition. Much of the groundwork for the EPA involvement has already been done, and the EPA is ready to act. Saying that it's going to take ten years is absolutely not correct. It may take years from now, but it will not, and it probably may take a year or two. But if we had started ten years ago, it would have already been done. That's the problem is that we are dragging our feet, and we can't do it anymore.

David Fair: You had mentioned that you plan to press much harder in order to get that request made and then enacted and addressed. How do you specifically go about that?

Eric Lipson: Well, the EPA has been called in. The governor, as you said, has approved--my understanding--EPA involvement. And that's good that we have a Democratic governor because she was much more receptive to that. Congressperson Dingell has been pressing very, very hard, and the EPA has already begun this process. So, what we do is encourage them in every way we can and reduce the amount of money we are spending on litigation. I would abandon the current litigation. It was just thrown out by the Court of Appeals. There's no reason to proceed with this. That's exactly what the polluter wants. They just want us to continue litigating forever and actually not actually doing anything. I want us to do something. I want us to encourage the EPA. I want us to do everything we possibly can to get that site designated as an EPA Superfund site, so they can make the polluter pay and actually clean it up and not just continue useless litigation.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Ann Arbor mayoral candidate Eric Lipson. And while we're on that subject of stewardship and sustainability, we'll come back to something you brought up just a little earlier. That's a look at development and the changing nature and character of the city. Under Mayor Taylor's leadership, plans have been and are being developed to create new and higher density housing that is also literally higher in the air. What would new development look like under a Lipson administration?

Eric Lipson: Well, under my administration, what we would do is to ask the people of Ann Arbor what they believe the shape and density and height of the city should be, not just allow free reign to developers, which is what we're doing now by this wholesale upzoning of so-called transit corridors. We need to engage in a comprehensive plan in 2023, which has already been budgeted for and do a very, very thorough outreach and inclusive outreach to all members of the community, not just the select few mayors, mayors' contributors, and developers. We need to ask the people what they want. So, I'm not saying that there's not going to be high-rise development. I think there are places where it's appropriate. I just think that we need to have a comprehensive plan process in place before we upzone these areas on the wholesale basis. All it does, at this point, is improve or, I should say, enrich the land speculators and donors to the mayor who have, in fact, been big recipients of the upzoning, which then appreciates the value of their holdings of their property.

David Fair: Within your plan, you mentioned affordable housing earlier--affordable housing that also better serves the health of the city's environment and infrastructure without changing so much of the esthetic and functional character of the city. How do you go about doing that?

Eric Lipson: Well, again, you have a comprehensive plan process in which people are included. Let me give you an example of how we've gone off the rails here. For the upzoning of the stadium transit corridor, there were public meetings. The public gave many, many suggestions as to how the process or the zoning could be improved. The planning department came back with many suggestions based on those, and these were professionals who came back and said, "This is how we could make these adjustments." The Planning Commission then rejected 100% of those. And, as it turns out on the Planning Commission, several members appointed by the mayor had to recuse themselves for direct conflicts of interest. Again, let's go back to the people of Ann Arbor and ask them what they think the future shape of our city should be, not a select few.

David Fair: I'm sure you're aware Avalon Housing anticipates adding hundreds of new affordable housing units over the next few years, including some of the entirely self-sufficient development called Veridian at County Farm. Outside of those planned units, how and where do you propose subsidized or low cost developments to make it more affordable in Ann Arbor?

Eric Lipson: Well, I think, in fact, there has been some very good affordable housing created by Avalon Housing and by the Housing Commission. For example, on Pauline, there was a housing near Stadium. There was a city-owned or Avalon--I'm not sure who the owner is, but it was done very, very humanely. It's low-rise, condensed, but still has green space. And it's a very delightful development. And I think we need to ask people--to show people--what the options are, not just the intense, high-rise development with no sustainability requirements, no affordability requirements, or incentives at all. So, those are the ways we can do that. I think there are many beautiful developments. There's a condo development west of by what's called Liberty Point. And that's a really nice development. It's both dense, and they've left green space. So, there are a lot of options that besides just hig- rise development, which has turned out to be neither affordable nor very humane. When you take a look at South University, for example, there's no affordability there. It's just high-rises. And we've lost a lot of the charm that the city formerly had in that area.

David Fair: We're talking with Ann Arbor mayoral candidate Eric Lipson on 89 one WEMU. We talked with incumbent Mayor Christopher Taylor earlier, and you can listen to that at WEMU dot org. Comparatively speaking, the City of Ann Arbor has weathered reduced revenue sharing from the state downturns in the economy and a pandemic economy better than most. Should you be elected, how do you envision stewarding the city budget and its economic health?

Eric Lipson: Yeah, that's a great point. I've been told that the City of Ann Arbor actually has a greater assessed valuation for its property, even with the exclusion of the university than either Detroit or Grand Rapids. I find that very interesting. So, we're obviously taking in a significant amount of tax revenue right now. I would say we have to take a look at our priorities--climate change being one of them--and direct those in a way that actually is not merely benefiting those people who are profiting from it. That is the big problem. The corruption of big money in our government is at all levels as a major problem. And that's, again, why the people need a voice and not just the donors and the contributors. Ann Arbor became a major investment area after the 2008 recession because people saw this area as being recession-proof. So, we're a destination for national capital, and that is distorting the shape of our city and has, again, taken the decision making process from the people and just giving it to the developers. And that's one of the things that I think we have to reverse.

David Fair: And how would you use the budget to create more diversity in the community and deal with issues of both economic and social justice inequity?

Eric Lipson: A great question. Well, you know, cooperatives are one solution. You look at where we have been in the city with Arrowwood, University Townhouses, Colonial Square. Those are all cooperatives. People own their own units, and they have retained both diversity and affordability. The state of Michigan has just allocated $52 million for what they call the, quote unquote, missing middle. That is people who make too much money to qualify for subsidized housing and not enough to actually buy a home. So, this would allow people in the middle income brackets--our nurses, our teachers, our service workers--to potentially own houses with the assistance of the government. We could leverage that money also with private lenders. There are many, many alternatives to just letting the free market take over and dictate what it is that the shape of our city and the kind of housing that we have. Avalon Housing has done an excellent job in creating a lower income housing, and they do an efficient job. And our housing commission too, under Jennifer Hall, has done a great job. And we need to expand that kind of effort.

David Fair: I know that turnout was about 25% in the primary election in which Mayor Taylor defeated your cohort, Anne Bannister. You are hoping for a much higher turnout in this particular election. I do want to point out to voters who will be going to the polls that you can still vote straight-ticket Democratic Party and choose within the races and have your ballot count. So, it does not necessarily mean that your ballot will be disqualified if you should fill out a race and vote straight Democratic Party. So, I am going to, with that in mind, ask you the same last question that I put to Mayor Taylor. If elected, paint me a word picture of what you envision Ann Arbor to be four years from now.

Eric Lipson: Well, in four years. I would hope that we have an area in which the Gelman dioxane plume is being addressed and so that our health of our population is not at risk because, as you know, that has already reached one of our drinking water wells, which had to be closed. It's approaching, as you said, the Barton Pond, which is the source of our drinking water. So, that's crucial as far as the shape and the health of our city. Again, I would also say that we need to have a continually comprehensive plan process, the revision, which is scheduled for 2023 and that, in the next year, will then help us in the following three years to determine exactly how the city should look in the future. I think that's essential. I would love Ann Arbor to maintain its charm, to maintain or to create affordability, because we have, you know, look at what we've done so far. Affordability: we've not been doing a great job on that. So, I would like to see, as I say, things like co-ops and leveraging the Michigan State Housing Development Authority money. I would like to see a city that is more diverse and more affordable for all of our citizens and more humane and livable. I think that the quality of life should from--and I hate to use that word--any other concerns as far as our living in Ann Arbor goes. We need a high quality of life, which we have now. And I don't want to see that threatened by overdevelopment and influences of money over democracy.

David Fair: Mr. Lipson, thank you so much for the time today. I appreciate it.

Eric Lipson: Hey, thank you, David. And, again, I appreciate your time and also the fact that you have noted that people can still vote as straight-ticket and still vote for an independent candidate. That's crucial for people to know. And I appreciate the outreach that EMU makes to the community.

David Fair: That is Eric Lipton. He is the independent candidate running for mayor of Ann Arbor, challenging incumbent Democrat Christopher Taylor, whom we spoke with earlier today. There is also a write-in candidate in Dylan Manna, whose name does not appear on the ballot. For more information and resources, visit our website at WEMU dot org. WEMU will be providing election results Tuesday night via our website and social media, and we'll have all available results with live interviews and reaction for you on Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community. NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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