Fine for zoning violation can only be imposed “upon conviction” in court

by Hannah Dankbar and Gary Taylor

Claybanks Township v Paul and Tana Feorene
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 8, 2015

Paul and Tana Feorene own 40 acres of land in Claybanks Township. They built a greenhouse, gazebo and hay barn on their property without obtaining zoning permits according to the Claybanks Township Zoning Ordinance (CTZO). The Township sued the Feorenes and requested that the trial court order them to remove the structures, but the Township was ordered to issue the zoning permits at the standard fee for the three structures.

The Township argued that the trial court did not follow CTZO and Michigan Zoning Enabling Act (MZEA). CTZO §§ 203 and 207 require a zoning permit to be obtained before construction begins and that any construction before a permit is obtained is a nuisance and must be abated. There is no question that the Feorenes violated CTZO by building the structures without permits; therefore the issue becomes the abatement of the nuisance.  The abatement could be accomplished either by razing the buildings or issuing the permits, and courts have broad discretion in granting relief appropriate to the circumstances. Once the Feorenes were notified that they needed zoning permits for the structures they attempted to get them; however, the Township conditioned granting the permits on the payment of a $3,100 fine it had already imposed on the Feorenes for violating CTZO. The Feorenes refused to pay the fine and built the buildings anyway.

CTZO §208 imposes a $100 fine “upon conviction” of violation of the CTZO, and each day the violation continues shall be deemed a separate offense.  Applying the rules of statutory interpretation, the court concluded that because the Township had not brought an action in court there could be no “conviction.”  As a result, the $3,100 fine was inappropriate.

The Feorenes claimed that Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA) also provided an alternative basis to affirm the trial court’s conclusion. RTFA was enacted to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits.  To assert an RTFA the Feorenes had to prove: (1) the challenged activity constitutes a “farm” or “farm operation”; and (2) the farm or farm operation conforms to the relevant generally accepted agricultural and management practices (GAAMPs). The Feorenes did not cite any relevant GAAMPs; and so the court rejected the RTFA argument.

The trial court ruling was affirmed.

Sewage holding tank pumped out by the city does not constitute “city sewer services”

by Hannah Dankbar

Charter Township of Haring v City of Cadillac
Michigan Court of Appeals, March 5, 2015

In the early 2000s the Charter Township of Haring signed an agreement with the city of Cadillac in accordance with MCL 124.22 which allows two or more local units of government to “conditionally transfer property for a period of not more than 50 years for the purpose of an economic development project” by means of “a written contract agreed to by the affected local units.” This contract conditionally transferred property in East Haring over to Cadillac so that Cadillac could provide public safety and infrastructure services for the property. The contract said that the property would belong to the city in 2053, however there was an early termination and reversal clause affecting part of the property, the Boersma parcel.

In relevant part, the early termination clause states:  For the [Boersma parcel], City water and/or City sewer services must be provided no later than 10 years from the effective date of this agreement. In the event that City water and/or City sewer services are not provided within the 10 year term provided above, then the real estate described in this paragraph shall be automatically removed from the terms of this agreement and the jurisdiction for such real estate shall immediately revert to the Township.

The contract was not specific about what constitutes “city water or sewer.” Cadillac did not put in a sewer pipeline that led to the wastewater treatment facility, rather the City installed a self-contained sewage holding tank and a truck was used to pump the sewage in order to transport it to the facility. Haring sued Cadillac in 2003 claiming a breach in the contract, and seeking termination of the contract for failing to install a sewer system.

The early termination clause specified that jurisdiction over the Boersma parcel would “immediately revert” to Haring Township if Cadillac failed to provide the Boersma parcel with “City water and/or City sewer services” within ten years of the agreement. The Township argued that the sewer services that Cadillac provides to Boersma are different, and of lower quality, than the services it provides to the other properties within their jurisdiction. Neither the early termination clause nor the wider contract defined “City sewer services.” The Court of Appeals referred to dictionary definitions of “city,” “sewer,” and “services” to ascertain the “plain and ordinary meaning” of the term as used in the agreement.

The infrastructure Cadillac installed on the Boersma parcel merely collects sewage in a holding structure, and leaves the sewage on the property. It does not “carry off waste water and refuse” to another location—the dictionary definition of what a “sewer” does…. The fact that Cadillac planned to upgrade the sewage infrastructure on the Boersma parcel militates against finding that the existing infrastructure satisfies the mandates of the early termination clause, because it indicates that Cadillac believes the existing infrastructure to be inadequate in some way—and perhaps not the “sewer” contemplated by the contract.

To meet the conditions of the agreement Cadillac must have installed a sewer pipeline that leads to the wastewater treatment plant within ten years of signing the agreement.  Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the property “immediately reverted[ed]” to the Township.

Platted village streets constitute “public highway” for purpose of defense to acquiescence claim

by Hannah Dankbar

Haynes v Village of Beulah
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 9, 2014

The Haynes argue that they are entitled to two strips of land within the platted rights-of-way of Lake Street and Commercial Avenue in the Village of Beulah citing the theory of acquiescence. The Haynes own Lots 10,11 and part of Lot 7 in Block 2. These lots are bordered by Lake Street on the northwest side and Commercial Avenue on the southwest side. Before 1968 the prior owners of the Haynes’ property installed railroad ties along Lake Street, separating the portion of the road used for travel from the grass and trees. On the southwest, a rock wall was installed in the 1950s to separate the part of Commercial Avenue used for travel from landscaping plants, a portion of the Haynes’ driveway, a maple tree and a strip of grass owned by the Haynes.

In 2012, the Village of Beulah introduced plans to create angled parking, a new sidewalk and a streetscape in the platted right-of-way of each street and would occupy land owned by the Haynes. The Haynes brought suit to prevent this action. The trial court granted the Village of Beulah’s motion for summary disposition based on MCL 247.190.

MCL 247.190 provides as follows:

 All public highways for which the right of way has at any time been dedicated, given or purchased, shall be and remain a highway of the width so dedicated, given or purchased, and no encroachments by fences, buildings or otherwise which may have been made since the purchase, dedication or gift nor any encroachments which were within the limits of such right of way at the time of such purchase, dedication or gift, and no encroachments which may hereafter be made, shall give the party or parties, firm or corporation so encroaching, any title or right to the land so encroached upon.

Plaintiffs argued that MCL 247.190 does not apply to platted village streets or property acquiescence claims.  The issue in this case is the definition of “public highways,” which is not defined in the statute. “Highway” has been defined through multiple cases and multiple legal dictionaries before the enactment of MCL 247.190. These definitions encompass a broad reading of the term “highway.” Because of this, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court did not err in broadly construing the term to include village streets.

The Haynes also argued that MCL 247.190 does not apply to property acquiescence claims, but the Court of Appeals disagreed. MCL 247.190 provides, “no encroachments” on a public highway “shall give the party or parties, firm or corporation so encroaching, any title or right to the land so encroached upon.” Nothing in the statute permits the court to distinguish between different legal theories used to assert a private right or claim to any portion of a public highway.  A claim for acquiescence constitutes an encroachment.

The Haynes also argued that the unimproved portions of platted right-of-ways are not “public highways” that are entitled to protection under MCL 247.190. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this assertion, as well.  It is sufficient for the spending of public funds on a road in a dedicated right-of-way to constitute public acceptance of the entire width, and therefore have the entire width constitute “public highway,” even if the municipality never improves the specific strips of land within the right-of-way.

Judgment for the Village of Beulah was affirmed.

Existing landscaping insufficient to meet ordinance buffer standards

by Hannah Dankbar

Schall v City of Williamston
Michigan Court of Appeals, December 4, 2014

William and Melanie Schall brought suit to compel their neighbors, D&G Equipment, Inc., owned by Elden and Jolene Gustafson to comply with the City of Williamston’s zoning ordinance that requires a special use permit to allow outdoor display of farm implements for sale.  The ordinance also requires a landscaped buffer zone to shield plaintiffs’ property from the sales display. The Schalls sought a writ of mandamus to compel the city and its contract zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance. The trial court found that the Gustafson’s use of their property violated the city’s zoning ordinance and ordered for the zoning administrator to enforce the ordinance.

As an initial matter the Court of Appeals affirmed that the Schalls had standing to bring the suit.  As abutting neighbors, the Schells “have a real interest in the subject matter of the controversy.  Nothing in state law indicates that private parties are limited in their ability to ask the court to abate a nuisance arising out of the violation of a zoning ordinance.

The requirements for a landscape buffer are defined in § 74-7.101 as “a minimum 15 feet wide” and “a staggered double row of closely spaced evergreens (i.e., no farther than 15 feet apart) which can be reasonably expected to form a complete visual barrier at least six feet in height within three years of installation.” The planning commission can only modify this requirement with “a written request identifying the relevant landscape standard, the proposed landscaping, how the proposed landscaping deviates from the landscaping standard, and why the modification is justified.”

In the present case, there was no “written request” to modify the ordinance standards. Even assuming that the site plan and the zoning administrator’s written and oral submissions to the planning commission were sufficient to meet this standard, and that the modified landscape included utilizing existing vegetation as part of the buffer, it must “achieve the same effect as the required landscaping.” The minimum standards of the ordinance apply except if the standard is reached with existing vegetation.

At the time of the lawsuit the buffer did not meet the standard, but the question became whether the buffer will meet the standard in three years. Based on its review of the expert testimony the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the landscaping could not meet the standards of the ordinance and, therefore, that the Gustafsons were in violation of the zoning ordinance.

The zoning ordinance is clear and unambiguous and the trial court did not err in granting  summary disposition by finding no material disputed fact that defendants’ buffer failed to comply with the zoning ordinance and therefore was an abatable nuisance per se.

 

ZBA’s denial of variance for billboard did not constitute unlawful prior restraint

by Rachel Greifenkamp

International Outdoor, Inc. v City of Roseville
(Michigan Court of Appeals, May 1, 2014)

In the City of Roseville, Michigan International Outdoor, Inc. (IO) applied to erect a billboard 70 feet high, 672 square feet total, 365 feet from property that was zoned residential. Due to regulations on billboards within city limits, the Building Department denied the application. IO appealed the decision to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) who also denied the application. IO then appealed to the circuit court, challenging the constitutionality of the ordinances.  After the circuit court also found in favor of the City, IO appealed to the State of Michigan Court of Appeals.

IO argued that the ordinances of the City of Roseville constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint because the city has not applied the stated objective standards for billboards found in the ordinance in a consistent manner. It maintained that the ZBA has ignored or waived those objective standards on an ad hoc basis, and relies solely on subjective criteria such as “in harmony with the general purpose of the sign ordinance,” “injurious to the neighborhood,” and “detrimental to the public welfare” when denying billboard applications.  These criteria, IO argued, have been found in previous court cases to be insufficiently precise and therefore unconstitutional prior restraint. The city countered that the circuit court was correct when it found the regulations on their face to be narrow, objective, and definite,  and that IO’s proposed billboard did not meet the standards of those regulations.

After noting that IO’s challenge was to the application of the ordinances by the ZBA, the court noted the key holdings in previous prior restraint cases:

  • A licensing scheme that gives public officials the power to deny use of a forum in advance of actual expression is a prior restraint on First Amendment liberties.
  • Any system of prior restraints on expression bears a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity.
  • A law subjecting the exercise of First Amendment freedoms to the prior restraint of a license must contain narrow, objective, and definite standards to guide the licensing authority.
  • Moreover, a licensing law that places “unbridled discretion in the hands of a government official or agency constitutes a prior restraint and may result in censorship.

Because IO could not meet the strict application of the narrow, objective, and definite terms of the city’s Sign Ordinance, it was required to present evidence that a variance from the ordinance was necessary; i.e., that a practical difficulty or unnecessary hardship existed. The record reflected that the ZBA applied this test in determining that a variance could not be granted.  the application of the test meant that the ZBA was not operating with unbridled discretion when it denied the variance.

Additionally, IO argued that commercial speech is protected under the First Amendment.  As such, any restriction or regulation must be advance a substantial government interest, and  the ordinance must be narrowly tailored to meet that interest. IO does not believe that it is narrowly tailored because the ZBA has the discretion to grant one request for a billboard otherwise restricted by the ordinance, but deny others. The court rejected this argument, noting that the stated purpose of the ordinance – “to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the City of Roseville, including but not limited to defining and regulating signs in order to promote aesthetics, to avoid danger from sign collapse and to regulate sign materials, avoid traffic hazards from sign locations and size, avoid visual blight and provide for the reasonable and orderly use of signs” – is a substantial governmental interest.  The court simply stated that IO provided “no relevant legal authority or factual support for its claim.

The circuit court’s decision in favor of the City of Roseville was affirmed.

Horse rescue project considered “commercial production” under (MI) Right to Farm Act; case remanded to consider GAAMPs

by Rachel Greifenkamp

Township of Webber v Bruce Austin
(Michigan Court of Appeals, April 22, 2014)

In 2011 Bruce Austin began a horse rescue project in the Township of Webber, Michigan on commercially zoned property that he had purchased for this purpose. The Township filed a complaint against Austin, alleging that the project violated the regulations of the commercial zoning district.  The Township was granted a preliminary injunction forcing Austin to temporarily cease his horse rescue project. At trial, Austin utilized the Michigan Right to Farm Act (RTFA) as an affirmative defense, stating that even though he had not yet made a profit from the project, he intended to in the future. The trial court deemed the animal rescue operation to be a valid nonconforming use of the property and was not a nuisance, and that therefore the use of the property was protected by the Michigan RTFA.  Following the trial court’s judgment, Austin filed for costs and attorney fees as well as costs for the transport, care, and feeding of the horses during the trial. Austin was granted attorney fees and costs but was denied animal care costs. The Township appealed both the judgment and the attorney fee award to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals addressed three issues critical to the outcome (1) characterization of the horse rescue project as a nonconforming use, (2) the application of generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs) under the RTFA, and (3) the horse rescue project as “commercial production” under the RTFA.

Nonconforming use.  A nonconforming use is “a vested right in the use of particular property that does not conform to zoning restrictions, but is protected because the use lawful existed before the zoning regulation’s effective date.”…When a property is transferred to a new owner, the nonconforming use may continue but cannot be expanded…To be a valid continuation of a nonconforming use, the new owner’s use must be “substantially of the same size and the same essential nature as the use existing at the time of passage of a valid zoning ordinance.” The court concluded that because the commercial zoning designation was in effect prior to Austin beginning his project, and the project was significantly different than the previous use of the property (no livestock was raised or sold), the horse rescue project was not a nonconforming use.

GAAMPs.  The township argued that the precedent set in the recently decided case of  Lima Township v. Bateson requires that a person asserting the RTFA as a defense has the burden of proving that the activity at issue is a protected operation, and that it complies with the generally accepted agricultural management practices (GAAMPs). Because the trial court’s refusal to consider the GAAMPs is directly contrary to the Bateson holding, the court determined that remand for further proceedings was necessary.

Commercial production. Finally, the township contended that the trial court’s determination that Austin’s horse rescue project was a commercial production protected by the RTFA was incorrect. The RTFA only protects activities associated with the commercial production of farm products.  While the RTFA itself does not define “commercial production,” previous cases have stated that commercial production means “the act of producing or manufacturing an item intended to be marketed and sold at a profit….There is no minimum level of sales that must be reached before the RTFA is applicable.  The trial court concluded that Austin successfully proved that he intended to operate the horse rescue project as a commercial production, and that absent clear error, the Court of Appeals could not overturn that assessment. This portion of the judgment was held by the Court of Appeals.

The judgment was reversed by the Court of Appeals and the case was remanded for rehearing the trial court level.

Michigan Right-to-Farm Act does not protect horses kept for personal use

by Kaitlin Heinen

Peggy Sue Brown v. Summerfield Township
(Michigan Court of Appeals,  August 23, 2012)

Peggy Sure Brown claimed that the Right to Farm Act (MCL 286.471) “preempts a township ordinance that prohibits her from keeping her horses on property less than one and a half acres.” The trial court, disagreed, finding that Brown was not engaged in a commercial farming operation.  She appealed.

The Right to Farm Act “states that a farm or farm operation must not be found to be a public or private nuisance if it conforms to ‘generally accepted agricultural and management practices’ (GAAMPs), according to policy determined by the state commission on agriculture. Local government may not enact or enforce an ordinance that conflicts with the Right to Farm Act or the GAAMPs.” (MCL 286.474(6)) So “any township ordinance, including a zoning ordinance, is unenforceable to the extent that it would prohibit conduct protected by the [Right to Farm Act],” which includes ordinances requiring minimum lot sizes.

The Right to Farm Act “preempts ordinances only to the extent that they impose restrictions on commercial farming operations,” which means that the Act does not apply to property owners who are not engaged in commercial operations for profit. A farm operation is defined “as activity conducted ‘in connection with the commercial production, harvesting, and storage of farm products.'” Brown referenced the subsection (MCL 286.472(b)) that mentions “the care of farm animals.” However, this subsection is listed in connection with possible farm activities conducted in a commercial operation. It is not an exception to the commercial requirement.

Brown offered no evidence that she kept her horses for profit (breeding, boarding, horse rides for fee, etc.). The Michigan Court of Appeals did not have to address  whether the farm operation provision creates a cause of action or provides a defense because the Right to Farm Act does not apply to Brown. The court  also did not have to address whether the farm operation provision applies to a new farming operation in property zoned as residential. The trial court rightly found it unnecessary to address the issues.

The Michigan Court of Appeals also held that the trial court rightly granted summary disposition on Brown’s substantive due process claim because the ordinance was not unreasonable.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court on Brown’s equal protection claim as well, since she offered no evidence that she had been treated differently than any other person. The trial court’s decision was thus affirmed.

Lakeway easement interpreted as providing access, not a park

by Victoria Heldt

Bedford, et. al., v. Joan Yvonne Rogers, Joan Yvonne Rogers Trust
(Michigan Court of Appeals, April 17, 2012)

The long list of plaintiffs in this case is comprised of property owners within the Glen Eyrie subdivision located on Crystal Lake.  The plat (recorded in 1920) and the parties’ deeds established a 100-foot wide strip of land designated as the “lakeway” between the plaintiffs’ property and the edge of Crystal Lake.  The lots do not extend all the way to the water.  The lakeway was to be “dedicated to the common use of property owners in Glen Eyrie plat.”  Sometime after 1920, Crystal Lake Drive was constructed parallel to, and partially within, the lakeway.  Surveys done in 2001 and 2010 indicated that the border separating the property owners’ lots and the lakeway is located near the center line of Crystal Lake Drive.

Historically, some of the property owners built boathouses or storage units in the lakeway.  When Rogers purchased her lot in 1987 a 20 x 28-foot boathouse was built in the lakeway in front of her property.  In September 2009 she applied to the township for a permit to build a new 28 x 34-foot boathouse to replace the existing one.  The township granted the permit and Rogers began construction in October 2009.  The new “boathouse” was to include running water, heat, toilet facilities, a kitchenette, a workshop, and a second floor cupola.

As Rogers’ construction was in its early stages, the plaintiffs wrote a letter through an attorney asking Rogers to cease construction since the lakeway was reserved for the common use of property owners.  Rogers refused to stop the construction.  In December 2009 the Lake Township Zoning Administrator wrote her a letter stating the building violated the township’s zoning ordinance since it “includes substantial space designated by the Building Department as living quarters” and issued a stop work order.  Rogers appealed the administrator’s opinion and, in April 2010, the Board of Appeals voted that the boathouse constructed should be “allowed as a compatible non-commercial recreational facility.”  The Board did place certain conditions on the property that included the removal of certain residential features (e.g. a tub, shower, and certain fixed kitchen appliances).

In trial court, the plaintiffs filed a request for summary disposition citing trespass and nuisance.  They argued that the plat dedication granted property owners an “irrevocable easement over the lakeway property and prevented defendant from exclusively using the portion of the lakeway in front of her lot by constructing a new structure that expanded the footprint of the old boathouse.”  Rogers also filed for summary disposition, arguing she owned the portion of the lakeway in front of her property and had the right to make use of it.  The court noted that a tacit agreement existed among land owners that 100% of the lakeway was not dedicated for common use since most property owners built boathouses for personal use.  History supported that claim since most of the structures had existed for over 40 years.  The court acknowledged that the expansion of this boathouse by several feet would not further prevent other land owners from using and enjoying the lakeway.  It determined the expansion should be allowed.

On appeal the Court of Appeals first noted that a use under a plat dedication must be within the scope of the dedication and must not interfere with the owners’ use and enjoyment of the property.  In this case, the plaintiffs interpreted the plat dedication to create a park for common use by the lot owners.  This Court of Appeals disagreed.  The dedication stated that “the drive, court, spring road and lakeway” were dedicated for common use.  When interpreting language like this, it is in accordance with precedent to treat word groups in a list as having related meanings.  The drive, court, and spring road are all used as right-of-ways (access) for lot owners to travel to, from, and within the plat, not as a park (which implied open space without obstructions).  The Court stated that the lakeway is to be considered similar; i.e., as a right-of-way.  The Court further noted that the term “lakeway” suggests it should be used as a right-of-way rather than a park (since the word “way” is found within the term.)

Subsequently, the Court determined that “the scope of the dedication created an easement within the lakeway for common use of lot owners of the land as a right-of-way that allows lot owners to use the lakeway in the same manner as the drive, court, and spring road.”  Since Crystal Drive, which runs through the lakeway, satisfies the purpose of a right-of-way providing access, there is no need to prohibit obstructions such as boathouses from the lakeway.   The Court determined that the slightly larger boathouse would not prevent residents from using and enjoying the lakeway for its purpose as right-of-way any more so than the previous boathouse did.  Thus, it affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Under Pontiac (MI) zoning, proposed use is a permitted outpatient clinic, not a crisis center

by Victoria Heldt

Common Ground v. City of Pontiac, Pontiac Planning Commission, Pontiac City Council
(Michigan Court of Appeals, May 3, 2012)

Common Ground owns a piece of land in the City of Pontiac on which it wanted to develop administrative offices and provide mental health services.  Catering to children, youth, and families in crisis, the services provided would include psychiatric screening, referrals, and outpatient counseling.  The land in question is zoned C-2, Central Business District.  This zoning classification allows for, among other things, “physical culture and health services.”  Property zoned C-2 also allows for any uses that are permitted in C-1 zones, which includes “medical clinics (outpatient only) and offices of doctors…and similar or allied professionals.”

Common Ground’s application was presented to the Pontiac Planning Commission at four separate meetings throughout 2008.  Provided with the application were reports from Madhu Oberoi (the city’s planning administrator) and David Breneau (City Planner) that stated the intended mental health center was a permitted use under the C-2 zoning district.  The planning commission also received complaints about the proposal on the grounds that it was not consistent with plans for the redevelopment of downtown Pontiac.  Pontiac’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) opposed the proposal because it believed downtown Pontiac was “oversaturated…with mental health care facilities.”

Subsequently, the planning commission held a closed meeting with an outside attorney.  It received a legal opinion stating Common Ground’s proposed facility was considered a “crisis center” that was not a permitted use under C-2 zoning.  In September 2008, the commission voted against the proposal without articulating in the minutes of the meeting an explanation for the vote or the findings of the commission.  About a week later Oberoi, who was not a member of the planning commission, wrote a letter detailing the reasons for the plan’s denial.  Among the reasons was that Common Ground’s proposed use was not a stated use within C-1 or C-2 districts and that the development would not be compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.  Common Ground appealed the decision to the city council, which affirmed the denial.

The circuit court ruled that the planning commission’s decision was procedurally defective since it did not articulate its reasons for denial as required by statute.  It also determined that the proposed site was within the “permitted principle uses” of C-2 districts, so the commission should not have denied the application on that basis.  It noted the proposed facility was clearly an outpatient clinic and constituted a “physical culture and health services” facility regardless of the fact that the commission labeled it a “crisis center.”  It remanded the case to the planning commission for reevaluation.

On remand, the planning commission acknowledged that Common Ground’s proposed use was permitted under the zoning district.  It found, however, that any facility where patients stay longer than 18 hours, are admitted against their will, or restrained is contrary to the goal of district C-2 zoning development as it does not attract “heavy pedestrian activity” or enhance the “economic welfare” of the area.  It further found that an ambulance bay is not a permitted accessory to clinics in C-2 districts.  It conditionally approved Common Grounds proposal so long as its exterior was modified to comply with the design guidelines in the area and it did not contain any residential quarters or detention areas.  It further prohibited any patients from being brought to the clinic restrained, against their will, or in an ambulance vehicle.    Common Ground appealed the commission’s restrictions, arguing the circuit court already declared the facility was a permitted use and that the restrictions the commission identified lie outside the governing scope of the Zoning Ordinance.  It claimed the few instances of restraint and the use of ambulances are ancillary to the principal use.  The Pontiac City Council again ruled in favor of the planning commission and affirmed the conditions placed on Common Ground’s development.

Common Ground brought the matter back to circuit court.  It objected to the exterior design stipulation because the ruling did not identify how to comply with the current building design standards and because it claimed the DDA Design Committee did not have the authority to dictate such matters.  Common Ground challenged the conditions regarding patient detention and ambulance transportation on the grounds that the relevant Zoning Ordinance only pertained to “physical characteristics of the building exterior and site” and not to activities and use of the site.  This time around, the trial court determined that an ambulance bay should be permitted because it was included in the application from the start and therefore falls within the permitted use.  It also stated Common Ground should be allowed to have a detention center for similar reasons, but maintained the prohibition of residential quarters.

On appeal, the City argued the circuit court erred when it determined Common Ground’s proposal was a permitted use.  The Court disagreed.  It noted that the zoning district clearly allows “medical clinics (outpatient only) and offices of doctors…and similar or allied professionals” and “health services.”  The City failed to show that a “crisis center” is anything other than a form of outpatient mental health clinic.  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the circuit court did not err when it found the planning commission’s ruling procedurally defective.  The zoning ordinance clearly states that the commission is required to articulate its reasoning and findings when making a decision regarding a permit.  The City’s last argument was that the conditions regarding the detention center and the ambulance bay do not comply with the district’s zoning goals because it does not attract pedestrians and enhance the economic welfare of the area.  In support of this argument, it asserted the city’s police powers authorized the commission to place conditions upon the site plan.  The Court noted that no other legal authority was cited and the argument was insufficient.  It affirmed the circuit court’s ruling.

Demolition not necessary to correct hazards posed by two historic Detroit structures

by Victoria Heldt

City of Grosse Pointe Park v. Detroit Historic District Commission
(Michigan Court of Appeals, April 19, 2012)

The City of Grosse Pointe Park (the City) wanted to demolish two buildings it owns on East Jefferson Street in Detroit – immediately adjacent to the City – to possibly construct a bus turnaround loop on the property.  One building was built in 1918 and the other in 1920.  In April 2007 the City applied to the Detroit Building Safety and Engineering Department (BS&E Department) for a permit to tear down the buildings, which it received.  Three days later, the BS&E Department issued a “stop work” order.  Since the properties are in a main street overlay area, the Detroit Planning and Development Department needed to sign off on the demolition and construction plans to ensure that it was “consistent with the design standards of the subdivision.”

In May 2007 the Jefferson Avenue Business Association asked the Detroit City council to establish the area as an interim historic district, which it agreed to.  The Historic Designation Advisory Board was ordered to study whether the property qualified for historic-designation status and the Detroit Historic District Commission (DHD commission) was to review the demolition and building permit applications within the scope of the Local Historic Districts Act (LHDA).

During April 2008 the City applied to the DHD commission for permission to demolish the buildings, noting that statue allows demolition where public safety is an issue.  It provided an affidavit from Ronald Supal, a building inspector, in which he stated the properties were “dangerous to human life and public welfare” and recommended they be demolished.  Jack Durbin, a professional engineer, also submitted a report recommending the buildings be razed.  Susan McBride, a staff member of the DHD commission, submitted a report noting that the City had never stated the cost of rehabilitating the building and argued the building should remain due to its historical and architectural value.  She claimed it is “one of the few remaining commercial districts that reflect commercial architecture and suburban development on the east side of Detroit during the 1920’s.”  At a public hearing, the DHD commission denied the application because it did not meet the United States Secretary of Interior’s standards for rehabilitation.

Soon after the hearing, the city council passed an ordinance that established the Jefferson-Chalmers Historic Business District, which included the buildings in question.  In July 2008 the City filed an appeal to the review board challenging the DHD commission’s denial.  It argued that the DHD commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious since the buildings were only an interim historic district when the application was denied.

In July 2009 the review board affirmed the DHD commission’s denial to demolish.  It noted the level of expertise present in the DHD commission and its authority to decide these matters.  It also found that the opinions the City provided from Supal and Durbin failed to establish that the buildings were a public hazard.  The board took issue with Durbin’s report because it lacked specific facts to support the conclusion.  It further found that the City “failed to establish that demolition was necessary to improve or correct any problematic condition.”  The City appealed in circuit court, which affirmed the review board’s decision.

On appeal, the City claimed that the circuit court misapplied the substantial-evidence test.  The Court disagreed.  It noted that the evidence the City presented was unconvincing.  The pictures provided in Supal’s report showed the deterioration in the buildings was “far less severe than is seen in many buildings which are routinely rehabilitated in Detroit.”  The City argued that buildings needed to be demolished because they did not meet current safety codes.  This claim was not sufficient because code compliance is the most common reason for buildings to be rehabilitated.  It further noted that, even if the buildings were shown to be a hazard to public safety, the City would have needed to prove that the proposed work (demolition) was “necessary to substantially improve or correct” the situation.  The evidence did no such thing.  Rehabilitation, too, could substantially improve or correct the situation. The Court concluded that the review board’s decision to deny the demolition request was reasonable and supported by the evidence.

The City’s last argument was that, according to statute, it was not required to prove the buildings posed an immediate or imminent hazard to the public.  The Court admitted that the words “immediate” and “imminent” are not necessarily contained in the governing statute, but that the specific wording in this case is a minor issue.  The statute clearly provides that an applicant must prove a building is a hazard to the safety of the public.  Additionally, the circuit court did not rule that the building did not constitute an immediate or imminent hazard, but rather that the evidence failed to convince the review board that demolition was necessary.  The Court affirmed the circuit court’s decision.

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