Unreasonable-to-repair provision in Brighton (MI) unsafe structure ordinance passes constitutional muster

by Gary Taylor

Bonner v. City of Brighton
(Michigan Supreme Court, April 24, 2014)

Under the City of Brighton, Michigan’s code of ordinances, if a structure is determined to be unsafe and the cost of repairs would exceed 100 percent of the true cash value of the structure when it was deemed unsafe, then the repairs are presumed unreasonable, the structure is presumed to be a public nuisance, and the city may order demolition of the structure without providing the owner an option to repair it.  The unreasonable-to-repair presumption can be overcome by presenting a viable repair plan, evidence from the landowner’s own experts that the repair costs would not exceed 100 percent of the property value, or evidence that the structure has some sort of cultural, historical, familial, or artistic value.

The City ordered Leon and Marilyn Bonner to demolish three unoccupied residential structures on their property after determining that repairs would exceed 100 percent of the true cash value of each of the structures (thereby providing the Bonner’s no option to repair).  The Bonners sued the City, and the circuit court and Michigan Court of Appeals determined that the above-discussed provisions of the Brighton Code of Ordinances violated property owners’ substantive and procedural due process rights.  The City appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court determined that the Court of Appeals erred by failing to separately analyze the Bonners’ substantive and procedural due process claims. The substantive component of due process protects against the arbitrary exercise of governmental power, whereas the procedural component ensures constitutionally sufficient procedures for the protection of life, liberty, and property interests.

Substantive Due Process.  Because property owners do not have a fundamental right to repair a structure deemed unsafe by a municipality before that structure can be demolished, the government’s interference with that right need only be reasonably related to a legitimate governmental interest. The Brighton ordinance did not constitute an unconstitutional deprivation of substantive due process because the ordinance’s unreasonable-to-repair presumption was reasonably related to the city’s legitimate interest in promoting the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens. Nuisance abatement is a legitimate exercise of police power, and demolition is a permissible method of achieving that end. The ordinance was not an arbitrary and unreasonable restriction on a property owner’s use of his or her property because the ordinances provided for circumstances under which the unreasonable-to-repair presumption could be overcome and repairs permitted.

Procedural Due Process.  The Supreme Court further determined that the  demolition procedures provided property owners with procedural due process by providing the right to appeal an adverse decision to the city council, as well as the right to subsequent judicial review. The City is not required to afford a property owner an option to repair as a matter of right before an unsafe structure could be demolished, nor is the City required to provide for a reasonable opportunity to repair the unsafe structure in order for the ordinance to pass constitutional muster.

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