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Canadian Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Network - Réseau Canadien de 
Conservation des Amphibiens et des Reptiles

SPOTTED TURTLES WIN RIGHT-OF-WAY

| Amphibian & Reptile Tunnels |

Developer adjusts office center plans to accommodate species; project approved.

By Janet Naylor / The Detroit News

ROCHESTER HILLS -- Developer Mukesh Mangla was in a bit of a spot. He wanted to build an office building on a six-acre site on South Boulevard that nobody else seemed to want.

But something was in the way: a pint-sized, polka-dotted fellow known as the spotted turtle, suspected of occasionally slipping down to hang out on the pocket-sized wetlands on the property.

The wetlands, as Mangla puts it, stretch "like a little finger sitting on the front of the property." That finger would have been cut in half by a driveway into the parking lot, denying a free run to the wetlands by the turtles.

After several trips back to the drawing board and 18 long months of haggling, the case almost ended up in court, said Mangla, owner of Premium Construction and a former engineer with General Motors Corp.

"We had a letter-writing contest" among lawyers, Mangla said, because he didn't expect the city to just give in. "With small developers, they (city officials) say just go ahead and fight us."

But no one really wanted a fight.

"It would have been a useless piece of property," said City Councilwoman Lois Golden.

Then the idea came to build a tunnel under the driveway so the turtles could cross safely from one piece of wetlands to another without fear of being turned into soup. It seemed a workable solution.

But then another problem surfaced. Turtles are quite picky about their tunnels.

"Certain species of wildlife, especially turtles, do not like to cross through dark tunnels for safety reasons," said David Mifsud, an environmental expert with JCK & Associates, the Novi architectural firm working on the project.

So, the civil engineering staff at JCK got together with Mifsud, who just happens to specialize in reptiles and amphibians, to figure out a way to build a grate into the driveway that's safe to drive over -- and which creates a pleasantly lit tunnel crossing below. The final product -- at a cost Mangla estimates at $100,000 -- was designed by JCK staffer Herve Henrey.

"This was the only way," Mifsud said.

"The developer really should be thanked," Golden said. "It was cheaper in the long run to go ahead and make the turtles happy, which makes everyone happy.

In England, pedestrian crossings for badgers aren't unheard of. In France, where frogs are best enjoyed on the dinner table sans tire marks, animal tunnels under roadways are common.

Though the spotted turtle isn't endangered, it is protected in Michigan because its numbers are dwindling. Though most of the blame is on loss of habitat to development, spotted turtles are also collected -- illegally in Michigan -- as pets.

Under a city ordinance, the 1.5 acres of wetlands on the site didn't need to follow the strict development regulations normally reserved for plots of 2 acres or more. But Rochester Hills officials were adamant about making sure the site was done right or not at all.

"Our first visit to the planning commission, we were tossed out on our tails," said Doug Necci, a vice-president with JCK and project manager. "Rochester Hills has a very high sensitivity to all the environmental isues."

Next-door neighbor Josephine Sbrocca, however, wishes the city had been little tougher.

"I like the view. I like the fact that all the trees are there," said Sbrocca, who owns the Canine Country Club pet boarding kennel.