“Auto graveyard” fails to exhaust state administrative remedies

by Kaitlin Heinen

Joseph P. Stanislaw v. Thetford Township
(Federal 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, February 20, 2013)

In July 1983, Joseph and Lorraine Stanislaw submitted a “vehicle dealer supplemental location license application” to sell used cars in Thetford Township, Michigan.  The township’s zoning ordinance required that automobile sales be conducted inside an enclosure, so the planning commission ordered the Stanislaws to construct such an enclosure in 30 days. In April 1984, a neighbor, Daniel Case, complained about the Stanislaws’ property. So Joseph Stanislaw appeared before the Planning Commission in May 1984 and August 1984 and received approval of a a plan that included an enclosing fence.  Thetford Township approved a new zoning ordinance in 1989, and the Stanislaws’ business was grandfathered in as a previously approved non-conforming use.

In September 2005, Case complained to the Township that the Stanislaws’ property was a junk yard. In 2004, Michigan passed an act that required car dealers to obtain “written verification from the appropriate governing or zoning authority that the established place of business meets all applicable municipal and zoning requirements” prior to any license renewal. So in December 2005, Lorraine Stanislaw submitted the necessary form to  renew the car dealership’s license. The Thetford Township Building Inspector, Mark Angus, inspected the property before signing. He refused to sign the Stanislaws’ forms concluding that the fence was in poor condition and that the property was “an auto graveyard.”

The Stanislaws submitted the license-renewal form to Michigan anyway. The state ordered the Stanislaws to fix their incomplete application by January 31, 2006. On January 24, 2006, the Stanislaws met with Angus, the Township Supervisor (Luther Hatchett) and the Police Chief (Thomas Kulcher). Lorraine Stanislaw testified that the Township said that they would revisit their application if the fence was restored and the cars were moved out of view. So Angus wrote a letter to the state asking for an extension to allow the Stanislaws more time to comply with the zoning ordinances. Joseph Stanislaw made the repairs to the fence. Hatchett sent Chief Kulcher to inspect the property.  Kulcher refused to sign the form because he found that vehicles were still sitting out front on the property.

In February 2006, the Planning Commission passed a motion, requiring the Stanislaws to construct a 6-foot-tall fence on the property.  The Stanislaws wanted to appeal this motion to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but Chief Kulcher supposedly told them that they could not. Kulcher denied saying this, testifying that he did not know anything about zoning appeals procedures. The Stanislaws instead filed this action in federal district court; however, the district court determined that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to consider the Stanislaws’ claim that the Thetford Township’s decision constituted a taking. This is because the Stanislaws did not give the state court the opportunity to adjudicate the issue of whether or not the State failed to provide just compensation.

The Stanislaws never appealed in state court Angus’ denial or the ZBA’s acceptance of Angus’ denial and order to construct a fence. The Stanislaws partly claim that they failed to the December 2005 ZBA vote because Chief Kulcher had told them that they could not. According to the federal district court, the Stanislaws provided no legal support that this would have excused them from their failure to appeal the ZBA’s decision. “Chief Kulcher is not familiar with appellate zoning procedures; however, the Stanislaws are quite familiar having dealt with the local zoning regulations on their property over the past two decades.”

The 6th Circuit Court agreed with the district court that the Stanislaws’ failed to exhaust their state administrative remedies.   “if a State provides an adequate procedure for seeking just compensation, the property owner cannot claim a violation of the Just Compensation Clause until it has used the procedure and been denied just compensation.” The Stanislaws argued that their claim was to be left alone to continue to do what they have been doing to earn a living for decades – not a taking of real estate, but rather their business interests.  The court held that the Stanislaws’ claim encompassed “some sort of ill-defined Fifth Amendment takings claim.” The Court disagreed with the assertion that the Stanislaws did not raise a takings claim; and agreed with the district court that the  claim was not ripe for federal review.

The Stanislaws’ other claims, according to the Court, were “somewhat jumbled and poorly explained” and “abstractly involved” procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection. They did not cite any case law that suggested a hearing would have been required for a decision to sign or not sign the license-approval form. Rather, the Stanislaws “had numerous hearings and opportunities over the course of two decades to remedy their non-conforming use of the property.” If a decision had been made without appropriate process, the correct recourse still would have been first to the state courts, not the federal courts. As for the equal protection claim,  The Stanislaws “failed to identify any similarly situated businesses who were actually treated differently,”  Thus the 6th Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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