Members of the Plymouth Township Planning Commission approved the plans for the Northville Downs in Plymouth horse racing track during a meeting Feb. 15. The meeting followed a public hearing on the issue during which residents spoke both in favor of and against the project.
The racetrack is proposed at a 124-acre site near Five Mile and Ridge Road. The site was formerly designated as the Ridge Five Corporate Park, but no development took place and the site is now vacant land. Only 52 acres of the site are suitable for building as the remainder is protected wetlands, according to township records.
The plans for the Plymouth site include construction of a half-mile oval harness racetrack; a two-story, 4,900-square- foot grandstand with a patio for viewing; a 23,000-square-foot racing building; a 35,000 square foot horse barn and a 3,200 square foot maintenance building. In addition, plans include a 54,000-square-foot gaming facility to be constructed during a future phase of development. Any casino or racino gambling would require state approval.
The planning commission members were asked to determine if the plans for the racetrack and other buildings meet predetermined criteria as a planned unit development, or PUD.
Residents spoke about the project for more than an hour and cited concerns regarding animal ethics and gambling in the community. Some claimed the plan does not conform to the township master plan. One resident reminded the commissioner of the death rate of horses in the racing industry. He noted that the state has outlawed dog racing due to the cruelty and asked the officials how the horse track was any different. Several residents reminded the officials of the closure of all horseracing tracks in the state, with the exception of Northville Downs.
Marilyn Bertera, of Northville, said she and her husband are lifelong harness racers and that she serves in roles with the U.S. Trotting Association and the American Horse Council.
“Standardbred horses are bred to race. That's what they like to do, that's what they enjoy doing. We don't force them to race. Most racehorses are very well cared for. They're our livelihood, so of course we take very good care of them,” she said.
Sally Patella, monitoring manager of The Friends of the Rouge told the commission the organization was “extremely concerned” about the project and impact it might have on Johnson Creek, the only cold water stream in the Rouge River watershed inhabited by a specific type of fish.
Officials said 556 email comments including 515 autogenerated PETA form letters, opposing the project were received.
Plymouth Township Economic Development Coordinator Gary Heitman drew a strong response from the audience when he responded to comments that the township was narrowly focused on the financial benefits of the proposed track.
“My goal is to fill every single open spot there is in this township with a business that brings taxes to the township,” Heitman said. He said the proposed site had been vacant for six years and, “I've had at least 50 businesses that were going to move in. I've gotten no (financial) support from Wayne County, no support from the State of Michigan.
“Guess what? I can put something worse in there, and I can make every one of you cry with some of the buildings and stuff I can put in,” he said, generating the visible ire of the audience members. Plymouth Township resident Catie Miglietti responded to Heitman noting, “I think it's sad that kind of behavior is tolerated here.” Her comments drew applause from the crowd.
Planning commissioners approved the PUD with conditions, sending it to the township board of trustees for consideration. If the plan is approved by the trustees, it will again be considered by the planning commission members. If approved by the board, the proposal will be reconsidered by the planning commission and will then be subject to the members of the township board of trustees for a site plan review.