The Road To Ruin
By JGillman, Section News
One person running for a local office up here is Cheryl Walton of Whitewater Township.
The cost to our communities from special assessments, millages and general apathy to the financial wherewithal of constituents can be appalling. Cheryl has written up in just a few paragraphs, a story that can be related and well understood in dozens of townships throughout Michigan. Examples of over-planning, a desire for the best, yet without the ability to pay, and property owners which find themselves on the raw end of someone else' ambition.
This is just one true tale, that as yet has not ended.
WHITEWATER TOWNSHIP BOARD'S "ROAD TO RUIN"
In January/February 2005, a petition for paving 4 roads (Watson, Mabel, Deal, and Lackey) was circulated to road frontage owners. A sheet accompanying the petition estimated the total cost of paving to be $1 million, to be split half and half between the Grand Traverse County Road Commission and the property owners, with the annual cost per "benefit" estimated at $200 annually for 10 years. More than 50% of the road frontage owners signed the petition.
In August 2005, a different petition listing 5 roads (Watson, Mabel, Deal, Lackey, AND SKEGEMOG POINT ROAD south of M-72) was circulated only to Skegemog Point Road frontage owners. Less than 50% of the frontage owners signed, not meeting the Public Improvement Act requirement that more than 50% of the frontage owners agree to the improvement. Despite this fact, the southern portion of Skegemog Point Road was added to the list of roads to be paved, adding close to $300,000 to the cost of the project. The signers of the 4-road petition never agreed to the paving of Skegemog Point Road.
The Whitewater Township Board, in concert with the Grand Traverse County Road Commission, had plans drawn up to not just pave but totally reconstruct all 5 roads. Those plans:
Before final approval of the WMDLS Special Assessment District, the Whitewater Township Board concocted a "Land Division & Development Rights Restriction" scheme which allowed property owners with parcels large enough to split to reduce the number of "benefits" they would be assessed in exchange for signing away their development rights for 15 years. For example, owners of 10-acre parcels were assigned 4 benefits because they could theoretically split the parcel into 4 lots. Under the development rights scheme, 10-acre lot owners were allowed to reduce their assigned "benefits" from 4 to 1 in exchange for giving up their development rights for 15 years. The total cost of the project was then re-spread over a shrinking number of assigned "benefits," thereby increasing the per-benefit cost. The net effect of this development rights scheme was to shift thousands of dollars of the project's cost from the large landowners to the small (1-2 acre) landowners, more than tripling the original "per-benefit" estimated cost. The small landowners never agreed to bear the burden of the large landowners' benefit costs. The large landowners were placed under considerable financial pressure having to pay for multiple "benefits" and were left with little choice but to accept the township's development rights scheme.
Additionally, the 2006 township board made a deal with Grand Traverse County that GT County would pay no interest on the bonds sold to finance this project. The WMDLS assessed property owners are paying 100% of the interest on the $2.5 million bond sale, now more than quadrupling the original estimated cost.
What has been the net effect of this "Road to Ruin"? Property owners in the WMDLS Special Assessment District have seen their tax bills increase by thousands of dollars per year, a cost many household budgets could not absorb. Foreclosures and forced land sales have taken place. The annual WMDLS assessment continues to wreak economic havoc on property owners in this neighborhood.
As the public hearings were held on the WMDLS project, a growing number of affected landowners objected to the 400% increase in cost and were no longer in favor of paving the roads, but the township board was not listening. The township board also refused to consider the filing of numerous pages of objection petition signatures calling for the project to be shelved. The township board went on to use their exclusive power under the Public Improvement Act to force a 10-year, $1.25 million debt, plus interest on $2.5 million, onto the backs of 250 property owners.
Sometimes your gut tells you that you have to step up to the plate and do something about a profound injustice that is happening to you and your neighbors. So it was with mine in the summer of 2006. After meeting with several affected landowners, it was decided that legal action must be taken against Whitewater Township to stop the road project. Another resident and I agreed to be the named plaintiffs and a lawsuit was filed in Grand Traverse County Circuit Court seeking, first, an injunction to stop the tree cutting and other preliminary work, and secondly, to have the special assessment district declared invalid on the basis of fraud. The request for injunction was denied. We never sought money; our goal was to put a halt to 10 years of looming economic devastation and loss of property rights for the WMDLS landowners.
As to the allegations of fraud in the creation of the special assessment district and the concoction of the development rights scheme, the township argued to the court that our case belonged not in Circuit Court but in the Michigan Tax Tribunal (MTT). We argued for the case to remain in Circuit Court where we desired to present our witnesses and exhibits in order to expose the fraudulent actions of the township board. We never got the opportunity to present our case. Judge Power ruled that we belonged in the MTT. We appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals (COA). After a very lengthy wait for a hearing date in the Court of Appeals and another lengthy wait for a decision, in October 2008 the Court of Appeals affirmed (agreed with) Judge Power's decision that the case should be heard in the Michigan Tax Tribunal. We of course did not agree and we then made application for leave (permission) to appeal the COA decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, which was denied in May 2009. That decision ended the Circuit Court lawsuit.
As directed by Judge Power and the Court of Appeals, myself and the other plaintiff then filed separate Michigan Tax Tribunal claims in 2009, once again only desirous of the opportunity to present our witnesses and exhibits on the alleged fraud. We were given a May 2011 hearing date and limited to 30 minutes of hearing time, an amount of time totally insufficient to fully present our case. Some months later, the Administrative Law Judge ruled that our cases were barred by the 30-day statute of limitations. We appealed that decision to the Court of Appeals and expect a ruling any day.
If the Administrative Law Judge's decision is affirmed by the Court of Appeals, which is the likely outcome, we will have exhausted our remedies with the judicial system, all without ever having been given a full opportunity to present our allegations of fraud. In 6 years, we've never had our "day in court."
Some have blamed the victims for the township's legal costs in defending the lawsuit. Yet, at any point, the Whitewater Township Board could have listened to the residents, stopped the project, and avoided any legal costs simply by doing their job and actually representing the people. The board chose not to and, therefore, bears the full responsibility, both financially and morally, for what they did to the WMDLS community.
The REAL cost of the "Road to Ruin" has been the human cost, the thousands of dollars added annually onto tax bills, the foreclosures , the forced sales, financial stress, the pitting of neighbor against neighbor over unequally shared costs, and the incalculable cost of marital and family stress. Six years later, it's not over.
This is the profound injustice that I and a handful of other property owners knew would unfold with the creation of the road special assessment district in 2006. We stood up and attempted to correct that injustice. Anyone who would suggest that we should not have stood up for what we thought was right is someone who wouldn't dream of ever standing up for you.
Not the end.
The Road To Ruin | 1 comment (1 topical, 0 hidden)
The Road To Ruin | 1 comment (1 topical, 0 hidden)
Related Links+ Also by JGillman