Judge: Vacate and demolish Liberty Square in Ypsilanti Township
Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton declared the 40-year-old complex a public nuisance and called it a “dilapidated and essentially abandoned housing area” in his written order. An attorney representing several of the remaining property owners in Liberty Square has said he will appeal the decision.
Ypsilanti Township will pay for the demolition of the 151 units in 17 buildings and a lien will be assessed to the property, which is located on Grove Road just west of Rawsonville Road.
Because the complex was declared a public nuisance, Michigan law doesn’t require the homeowners be compensated. But the order does require the township to “reasonably assist” the few remaining tenants with relocation, though officials weren’t yet clear on what that would entail.
Shelton cited the testimony and evidence presented by township building inspector Ron Fulton and Shelton’s own visit to the complex to inspect its conditions on June 24.
Among other issues to which Fulton testified and Shelton said he observed:
- Extensive water damage because the units and buildings aren’t weather-tight. That has led to mold intrusion.
- Most roofs are in need of replacement, most fascia is rotting and brick walls are damaged or deteriorating.
- Extensive vandalism through the buildings left 50 percent of its windows broken and all the vacant units were stripped of metal and appliances.
- A large exterior column outside one of the buildings rotted and collapsed in front of a building.
- Several units that burned remain uninhabited and were not repaired.
- Individual unites are in danger of collapse due to rotting subflooring.
“The dilapidated and crumbling conditions at Liberty Square present a continuing, impending danger to the general public and to the legitimate property or personal rights of any person living or even entering upon the complex,” Shelton wrote.
Shelton also cited the testimony of independent structural engineer Thomas Fitzpatrick, who determined that the buildings were experiencing significant wood rot and that wood in the buildings was “like butter.”
According to the order, Fitzpatrick testified the nine to 11 units in each building are “tied together” at the top and the foundations are so inadequate that the units would collapse if neighboring units were demolished.
Because of those issues, the court opted to order the demolition of the entire complex instead of just unoccupied units or buildings.
Shelton also highlighted the complex ownership situation. Each unit is individually owned, and each property owner is automatically part of the Grove Park Home Improvement Association, which is the owners’ legal representative.
The Home Improvement Association is responsible for all of the buildings’ exterior upkeep, though it had failed to maintain the properties in recent years. Shelton noted a 2006 Washtenaw County Office of Community Standards study that found the $170.00 in monthly maintenance fees owners had been paying clearly hadn’t been put towards maintenance.
Shelton also wrote that the ownership arrangement requires a “critical mass” of residents paying dues monthly, and he said Liberty Square had been well short of that critical mass for years.
Of the 151 units, many have already been foreclosed on and are owned by the township, and a total of 122 will have been foreclosed on by March 31, 2012. Nine owner-occupied units remain, and the units have lost an average of 70 percent of their value between 2008 and 2011.
Shelton acknowledged that the remaining nine owners want to make improvements to their homes, but said they lack the resources to make the entire property safe and bring it up to code.
“While the court is sympathetic to their concerns, the nature of the collective housing ownership scheme is such that they are powerless to undertake the massive structural repairs that would make the complex safe,” Shelton wrote.
Attorney Don Darnell, who represented many of the property owners, said none of the issues Fulton testified to were present in his clients’ townhomes.
“Literally none of them,” Darnell said, adding that Fulton testified that he didn’t inspect the homes of the owners represented by Darnell. “This is a matter of guilt by association.”
He said some the issues were present in the buildings, but no evidence was presented that any of it constituted a threat to the public.
He said he was disappointed but added “after doing this for 15 years, nothing surprises me anymore.”
Fulton defended his testimony.
“Twenty years of neglect and deterioration cannot be fabricated on the witness stand,” he said. “It would be absurd to suggest that there are no public nuisance issues going on at the Square. Virtually every individual with whom I have spoken, including current and past owners as well as current and past residents, realize that the degradation of the exterior is extreme, leading to the uninhabitability of the interior.”
Township Attorney Dennis McLain also disagreed with Darnell’s assessment.
“It’s clear there are dangers that exist to the public; not just to the occupants but to anybody who comes into contact or within the vicinity of those structures,” he said. “It’s not something taken lightly by the township, and we are concerned about the remaining residents. They are residents of the township and they deserve consideration.”
Carolyn Chadwick is one of the owner occupants who is being forced from her home. She said she is worried she could become homeless and disagrees that the buildings are uninhabitable.
“We believe these are very sound homes,” she said. “I’m going to respect the law of the land and leave, but I’m very disturbed and I believe after all the time I’ve lived here, all the money I’ve spent, I’ve been paying taxes this whole time and trying to maintain my property, so we should be compensated to be able to find a new place.”
Mike Radzik, director of the township’s office of community standards, said he is unsure what the township will do to help with relocation. In the past, such as when the Ypsilanti Mobile Village trailer park was shut down, the Washtenaw County Office of Community Development has helped residents relocate and assisted with moving costs.