State Court of Appeals upholds Liberty Square decision; final block to demolition cleared
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
The five-year legal saga over the fate of Ypsilanti Township’s Liberty Square reached its likely conclusion on March 25 when the Michigan State Court of Appeals upheld a Washtenaw County Circuit Court order to demolish the complex.
Officials are hopeful that the decaying 17-building, 151-unit townhouse complex will largely be cleared by the end of May.
The township’s efforts to get the now-abandoned 23-acre property brought up to code or, when complex leadership failed to do that, demolished, began in early 2008 when notices of violation for upkeep issues were posted on 68 units.
Attorney Don Darnell represented a small group of property homeowners who appealed Washtenaw County Judge Donald Shelton’s August 2011 ruling that the property was a public nuisance and had to be vacated.
A three-judge panel at the Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision on the case.
Ypsilanti Township Attorney Dennis McLain called it a “complete and total victory”.
“We felt the township had a very strong case in the beginning,” McLain said. “Staff performed a yeoman’s effort in collecting evidence and providing documentation that the legal counsel needed to organize and present to the court.”
Mike Radzik, director of the township's office of community standards, said the sheer size of the property, volume of code violations and complexity of the legal case made it the largest nuisance abatement project the township has faced.
"We had to file suit against 46 different defendants. Just finding them and properly serving them all was a challenge," he said. "In the end we accomplished all of this not just adequately, but superbly, and the results speak for themselves."
Central to Darnell’s appeal was the argument that the issues at Liberty Square were “mere building code violations that did amount to a public nuisance,” according the opinion written by the Court of Appeals judges.
The opinion stated that the Circuit Court, through township testimony, independent expert testimony, photographic evidence and a visit by Shelton to the property, found enough issues for Liberty Square to be considered a public nuisance.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
Among the issues cited:
- None of the units were weather tight.
- The majority of roofs needed to be replaced.
- Fascia throughout the complex had decayed.
- There was extensive damage from vandalism.
- More than 50 percent of the windows were broken.
- Vermin, rodents, and birds had infiltrated many vacant units.
- Improper crawl space construction with lack of ventilation had caused wood rot at the thresholds.
- Foundations at the front and rear entrances of the units appeared to be water damaged and failing.
- There was extensive water damage in the interior of many units.
- Most units were stripped by previous owners and vandals.
- Wood in the buildings was rotting and “like butter”, according to an independent architect.
In the lower court's ruling, Shelton wrote that the complex was “dilapidated and crumbling”.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the code violations constituted a public nuisance.
“The testimonial and photographic evidence, expert testimony, and the court’s own view of the premises support the court’s finding of a public nuisance,” wrote the Court of Appeals judges in their opinion.
Darnell also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the Circuit Court’s findings because Building Inspector Ron Fulton didn’t inspect all his clients’ units.
The Court of Appeals also rejected that argument, stating that Fulton had inspected a vast majority of the units at Liberty Square, and there was enough evidence from Shelton’s visit to the complex, photographic evidence and expert testimony to support the case.
The appeal also contended that the general public was not affected by the conditions at Liberty Square, therefore the property couldn’t be considered a public nuisance. But the court noted that the properties were mostly rentals offered to the general public and those residing in the units were a part of the public.
Darnell further argued that no evidence was presented that his clients’ homes contributed to the issues, therefore they shouldn’t be forced from their homes.
“This is a matter of guilt by association,” Darnell previously stated.
But the appellate court upheld the lower court’s view that the units were tied to together, supported by expert testimony that said “the way the buildings were constructed, it was impossible for a single pristine unit to stand alone.”
Essentially, the owners were saying that their units were in good shape and they didn't mind if the rest of the complex was torn down around them.
McLain said that would be physically impossible, and also financially impossible.
“Frankly, I thought it was a very shortsighted arguments that they were trying to make with regard to leaving their units only,” he said.
Prior to the notices of violations issued at the complex in 2008, Washtenaw County had commissioned an independent study that found that the complex was riddled with structural and crime issues, and demolition was the best remedy. Flagstar Bank had foreclosed on 58 units prior to that, and McLain said the county was receiving complaints about conditions there.
In spring of 2010, the the Grove Park Homeowners Association, which was charged with the property’s upkeep and all homeowners were automatically a part of, was issued a notice of violation for all the units it owned.
A lawyer for the homeowners association responded that the notice was vague. In response, the township mailed notices to all the property owners and condemned the units in June 2010.
Around that time, the Washtenaw County Treasurer’s Office foreclosed on 63 units, bringing the total of foreclosed units up to 121.
After the township gathered more evidence, an addendum to the previous notice of violation was posted on each resident’s door in August of 2010, and the township filed a suit in Circuit Court in December of 2010 asking the property to be declared a public nuisance.
That trial stretched over seven months, and a decision was reached in August of 2011.
Although the appeal process took months, there was no stay placed on the lower court's order to demolish Liberty Square, and the township had already begun looking for funding and prepping the site for demolition.
The township recently learned it would be awarded a $653,000 grant through the state to fund the property's demolition. Once it receives those funds, the township Board of Trustees must approve the bid for the project, and officials are hopeful to have the project started by Memorial Day.
Radzik said he is most pleased for the residents and businesses and the surrounding area.
"More than anything, it's the principal of having the elementary school across the street with teachers and students looking at it all day; people in the nearby neighborhoods having to look at; and it’s having the business owners along Grove Road and Rawsonville Road looking at it. I can only imagine the impact it will have on their lives once this is gone. Having closure for those folks makes the project worth it."
Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter. Contact the AnnArbor.com news desk at firstname.lastname@example.org.