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Property owners near failed dams win key court ruling

May 22, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this July 30, 2020, file photo, debris rests at the spillway of the Sanford Dam in downtown Sanford, Mich. Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, proposed spending $500 million to repair aging dams a year after a hydroelectric dam failed to hold back floodwaters in the Midland area, causing more than $250 million in damage, draining lakes and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. (AP Photo/ Jeff McMillan File)
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FILE - In this July 30, 2020, file photo, debris rests at the spillway of the Sanford Dam in downtown Sanford, Mich. Michigan lawmakers on Wednesday, May 19, 2021, proposed spending $500 million to repair aging dams a year after a hydroelectric dam failed to hold back floodwaters in the Midland area, causing more than $250 million in damage, draining lakes and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate their homes. (AP Photo/ Jeff McMillan File)

SANFORD, Mich. (AP) — Property owners near dams that failed in the Midland area won a key decision in lawsuits against the state.

Judge Cynthia Stephens said the lawsuits can go forward, rejecting a request to dismiss by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. It’s an early stage in the litigation, but the ruling Friday was a victory for people who claim the state contributed to the disaster.

“This is a significant step forward in compensating these nearly 10,000 flood victims,” attorney Ven Johnson said.

A year ago, the Edenville Dam failed during a steady rain, draining Wixom Lake and unleashing the Tittabawassee River, which then overwhelmed the Sanford Dam, about 140 miles north of Detroit.

Johnson said the state failed to demand repairs at the privately owned Edenville Dam, after federal regulators revoked the hydroelectric permit in 2018, and emphasized a high lake level to protect aquatic life.

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The lawsuits allege an unconstitutional taking of private property without compensation.

Property owners have “adequately alleged a causal connection between the government’s actions and the alleged damages,” said Stephens, a judge at the Court of Claims.

She said the arguments were similar to those made by Flint residents whose water was spoiled by lead. The Michigan Supreme Court in 2020 said residents could make an inverse condemnation claim against the state, which allowed use of the Flint River.