Illegal Spot Zoning and Illegal Use of Land

(Cottrellville, Michigan)

Visitor Question: In 2017, the son of a township board member lived on property that was zoned A-1 Agricultural, which is one of the four "Residential" types of zoning.

This land was illegally being used to allow a local tree service company that was working for the electric power company to park all its trucks there and to park all the employee vehicles there. Over two dozen industrial trucks were parking there each day for over a year. Each of these industrial tree service trucks needed two employees. The employees drove dozens of vehicles (i.e., cars and trucks) to this A-1 land every day, where the vehicles remained parked all day while the industrial trucks were being used.

The property is located on a main road that has only two lanes. This main road is one of the busiest roads in the county (with over 10,000 vehicles per day).

All that traffic every morning and every evening was causing severe traffic problems. There were many people even dangerously passing on the outside shoulders of the lanes.

I contacted the tree service to let them know they were violating the zoning ordinances, but the tree service didn't care. I also contacted the power company to let them know the zoning ordinances were being violated; however, the power company didn't care.

I possess an audio recording where I am told multiple disturbing things by one of the owners of the tree service company.

First, I'm told that he went to see the township supervisor in person. The owner brags to me that the township supervisor told him that she was not going to enforce any zoning ordinance violations against the tree service company.

Second, I learn that the tree service was paying literally thousands of dollars each month to park all those industrial vehicles and employee vehicles on that A-1 Agricultural Residential property.

Third, the property where all of these vehicles are being parked on is owned by the son of the township Trustee. The son of the township Trustee has a home on this property and lives on this property

I also possess an audio recording where another co-owner of the tree service attempts to bribe me. I am asked if I would like some of the money if I would allow the vehicles to be parked in my yard further down the road, which is also zoned A-1 Agricultural Residential. I declined the offer for this immoral money.

I contacted a local TV station in order to document what was going on. The TV reporter covered this and was all set to do a story on this. The reporter needed to leave the state for two weeks. During that time period, the tree service finally left after all that time.

For a while, things were the way they were supposed to be. But in 2019 things started stockpiling up on the property of this son of the township Trustee again. This time it was commercial trucks and tow trucks stockpiling junk vehicles. The property owner is simply using his property as a way to make money as a form of "storage" to stockpile vehicles.

The land to the east, west, north, and south of this land are all zoned A-1 Agricultural, which is a Residential zone. Across the street is another township, and all the properties on that side of the road are also zoned Agricultural, which is a Residential type of zone.

In 2019 this son of the township Trustee applied for a Rezoning Application so the property would be rezoned as L-1 Light Industrial, which is one of the three Business types of zoning. Many other people and I attended a Public Hearing with the Planning Commission in order to object. I did not have time to be there, so I simply dropped off a letter to the Planning Commission.

There was also another property with a request for rezoning to Business. This property was owned by a woman who purchased the land from the township Supervisor. This is another example of how spot zoning occurs in the township so severely.

The Rezoning Application for L-1 Light Industrial was granted by the Township Board. There was never any doubt this was going to be granted, because it is the son of the township Trustee who was making the request. Plus, the land was already being illegally used as if it were L-1 Light Industrial for over a year before any request was made. The only reason this request was made at all is because so many people wrote online that the land needed to be zoned as L-1 Light Industrial to be performing in such a way.

I recently used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a document explaining that the rezoning for this property was talked about "unofficially" at four Planning Commission meetings. There was also a Public Hearing. This document claims the land is just a small section of land that has been rezoned to L-1 Light-Industrial. The document pointed out that this small section zoned as L-1 Light Industrial is in front of the larger section of land behind it that is still zoned as A-1 Agricultural.

However, this is no surprise at all for one reason. The larger A-1 section of land is a different parcel of land that is owned by the township Trustee. The township Trustee sold that smaller section of land to his son. So, it is the parcel of land owned by the son of the Trustee that was being used illegally and was rezoned as L-1 Light Industrial, not the property sitting behind it that is owned by the township Trustee.

I'm telling you all this because it is incredibly immoral the way this land was rezoned. The "Residence" of the township Trustee is on this property that is now rezoned as L-1 Light Industrial, which is one of the Business zones. It is actually incredibly unsafe for a child that lives there to be running around in that type of environment with all those industrial trucks and vehicles.

On this YouTube video, you can see what the land looks like when the employees are not yet there. You see the industrial vehicles lined up on the land. This number actually was much higher later on:

On this video, you can see what the land looks like during the day when the industrial vehicles owned by the tree company were at work for the electric company. You see all the cars and trucks owned by the employees:

I have included screenshots of each of those environments, too.

A privacy fence was installed after this fleet of trucks eventually left. For a short time, nothing was parked there illegally. But, commercial vehicles are now once again being stockpiled on this land, which is now zoned as L-1 Light Industrial, even though there is a home right there.

The Planning Commission claims this agrees with the Master Plan, which calls for more property to be zoned as Business and Light Industrial in that area in order to try to attract more businesses to the township.

However, this claim is nonsense. The 25-Year Master Plan did not include any of that type of information about turning the land into Business zones until the year 2016. This was no coincidence. The township Trustee became Trustee in 2015, and prior to that was the Deputy Supervisor starting in 2012. The Master Plan was changed in order to make changes to land owned by the township Trustee and his son in that area.

I have been told it is illegal to run that type of industrial business from a home or place of residence. Is that true?

This seems like it may be true. For example, I know someone who is an attorney and tried having an office out of her home. However, she was not allowed to do so and needed to rent an office in a nearby city. The land owned by that smalltime attorney trying to work out of home was zoned A-1 Agricultural.

Also, what type of options are available for taking the township to court in order to reverse this rezoning from A-1 Agricultural Residential to L-1 Light Industrial Business? Can Attorney Fees and Court Costs be recovered? This is taking place in the state of Michigan. Money is the reason why this has not been taken to court so far. People simply do not have the funds, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Is there any form of legal aid that can be obtained?

I have also uploaded a screenshot of the property with its property fence and the new trucks that are being stockpiled.

Thank you for your time and help.

Editors Reply: The situation you describe well seems very obnoxious.

To go directly to an answer, we cannot imagine a legal aid group that would take on this project. Each organization has its own rules about what kind of cases they take; generally they avoid complex land use lawsuits, which this would be. (A few locations in the country don't have a legal aid organization, which might go by different names.)

Large law firms often do some work "pro bono," or for free, in plain language. Look into this by calling a local bar association, if there is one.

Since these people cleverly changed the master plan in order to accommodate their intended rezoning and land use, it would be hard to win a lawsuit anyway. An attorney would have to dig into case law about the specific facts of how the master plan change and rezoning was accomplished, trying to find some procedural flaw.

Sometimes the practical choices in situations like this one are pretty stark. We certainly encourage a preliminary conversation with an attorney who has considerable experience in land use law; the right lawyer might be a good distance away, but you need someone with this specialty.

Your state also might have some conflict of interest laws for public officials that have been violated here, so that is another possibility.

If a preliminary legal conversation or two doesn't yield a fairly low cost route, you and the others should consider doing the work to change the political leadership, or move. Our sympathy is all with you, but we have to lay out those stark choices for you. Considering that others agree with you, the political route may be best.

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