Township to take land deal to Supreme Court
Attorneys Cox and Bennett set-up lawsuit strategy for township board members during special meeting last week.
Photo: © Don Howard/Associated Newspapers of Michigan
Mar. 4, 2016 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
Plymouth Michigan News
“If we win this, we would be taking property from the people of Detroit. I totally disagree with this. It (the property purchase) has stunk from day one and we all know it. It’s time to move on,”
Despite losses in both Wayne County Circuit and Michigan Court of Appeals, members of the Plymouth Township Board of Trustees voted 3-2 last week to take their disputed claim on 190 acres of land to the Michigan Supreme Court.
To date, the township has spent more than $77,000 in legal fees pursuing their claim on the land, part of a 323-acre parcel that was once Detroit House of Corrections property. The township purchased the land at a Wayne County tax foreclosure sale in 2011 for $606,000 which was later ruled improper by the courts, as the land has belonged to the City of Detroit since 1919 and municipal land is exempt from foreclosure by state law.
That law and the additional argument of Detroit attorneys that the city had not received adequate notice of any tax delinquency was first upheld by Wayne County Circuit Court
Judge Robert Columbo, Jr. His ruling was staunchly upheld by a three-judge appeals court panel last month. The judges further upheld the state law exempting municipally-owned property from foreclosure, despite township attorney Kevin’s Bennett’s argument before Columbo that the law states the municipal land must be for public use to qualify for such an exemption. The appeals judges ordered the land returned to the City of Detroit.
A 133-acre portion of the Detroit-owned, 323-acre site on Five Mile, west of Ridge Road, was sold to a developer in 2006. Detroit retained title to the remaining 190 acres, the subject of the legal dispute. The large parcel was never correctly split into two sections according to township and county records and tax notices for the property went to the purchaser of the smaller section . That developer never paid any taxes on any of the property and the township subsequently sent notices of that non-payment to Wayne County which eventually foreclosed on the entire 323-acre site. The land was then offered for sale to the state, which by law has the right of first refusal, and then to the township. Plymouth Township immediately purchased the land, once on the tax rolls at more than $15 million, for $606,000 plus back taxes, estimated at another $100,000.
Trustees Bob Doroshewitz and Chuck Curmi voted against spending any further legal fees, estimated at $10,000 to create a leave to appeal brief, in an attempt to overturn the court decisions while Supervisor Shannon Price, Clerk Nancy Conzelman and Trustee Mike Kelly voted in favor of continuing the legal battle. Treasurer Ron Edwards and Trustee Steve Mann, called the “architects” of the land deal, were not at the special meeting Monday.
Price told the board members that the township would be walking away from more than $220,000 if no further appeal of the court decisions were authorized.
Doroshewitz, a practicing attorney, strongly disagreed and suggested the township should accept the court decisions. “If we win this, we would be taking property from the people of Detroit. I totally disagree with this. It (the property purchase) has stunk from day one and we all know it. It’s time to move on,” he said.
Cox said that the continued legal wrangling would keep pressure on Wayne County and attorneys at the City of Detroit during negotiations for a return of taxes paid by the township on the land. The appeals court decision precludes the county from collecting any back taxes from the City of Detroit, Cox said. He insisted that filing for a hearing before the state Supreme Court would put pressure on the City of Detroit and Wayne County to reach a settlement agreement and refund taxes to Plymouth Township.
State Supreme Court Justice Brian Zahara presided over Price’s ceremonial swearing-in at his first board of trustees meeting as supervisor last April. Justice Stephen J. Markham was previously an attorney with Miller-Canfield, Paddock and Stone, based in Detroit, where Trustee Steve Mann is now employed.
Despite Price’s opening comments contending that it was Wayne County that sent the tax notices and set the foreclosure and subsequent tax sale of the land, spokesmen from the office of the Wayne County Treasurer have repeatedly stated that their actions in the tax notifications, foreclosure proceedings and subsequent tax sale were based solely on information and records provided by Plymouth Township and that the county has no legal exposure in the matter. Deputy Treasurer Eric Sabree re-affirmed the statements Wayne County attorney Jacob Ghannam recited in the circuit court trial before Columbo, disavowing any error on the part of the treasurer’s office in the matter.
Bennett claims that the developer who purchased the 133-acre parcel had an agreement with Detroit to file the land-split documentation, and that the township acted in good faith in the purchase of the land at the tax sale.
Detroit attorneys disputed that claim in their court filings, however, and suggested that the township was culpable in “engineering” the mailing of tax notices to the incorrect owner and then to the incorrect address in an effort to benefit from “a windfall” at the expense of the City of Detroit.
Cox, however, claims that the City of Detroit is being “unfairly enriched” at the expense of Plymouth Township which paid taxes on the land as part of the foreclosure sale purchase and since that time.
Staff Writer Don Howard contributed to this story.