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  • By Lisa Brody

Developer lawsuit against township thrown out

A federal lawsuit by a developer who wanted to subdivide three lots in the Bloomfield Manor subdivision near Big Beaver and Woodward in Bloomfield Township but had been denied by a unanimous vote of the Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees in December 2016, as it would change the character of the neighborhood and set a precedence for other developers, was denied and the township granted summary judgement in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, February 7.

At the board of trustees meeting on December 12, 2016, Patti Voelker, planning, building and ordinance director, explained that developer Matt Shiffman was seeking approval to demolish two existing homes and then subdivide the three parcels in order to get eight single family residential lots. The 7.33-acre property fronts Big Beaver on the north, Manor Road to the south, Manor Park in the city of Birmingham to the east, and Bloomfield Manor subdivision to the west, whose residents were opposed to the division of the property. Manor Road weaves between Bloomfield Township and Birmingham. There are a total of 34 platted subdivision lots in the entire Bloomfield Manor subdivision.

Plans submitted showed a private cul-de-sac road with an entryway with a limestone sign reading “Manor Estates.” Each subdivided lot was proposed at an acre or under, while existing lot sizes are considerably larger, with some home sites sitting on several acres. “The parcels comply with township ordinances. The lot sizes meet the R-3 standards, and are accessible from a private road,” said Shiffman's attorney Rick Rattner at the time. “All of the lots are rectangular. The design of the lots, the designs of the homes will be reflective of the people buying those homes, just like the eclectic homes that are there.”

Numerous residents, however, told trustees they objected to the lot split because they had bought and lived in the neighborhood precisely because of the wooded, rural topography and secluded nature close to downtown Birmingham. Many noted that lot splits were not permitted in Bloomfield Manor Association area by deed restriction.

“It would be a dramatic impact upon everyone,” said one resident. “It wouldn't fit in.”

Trustee Michael Schostak asked if they approved the lot split whether it would set a precedent. Township attorney Bill Hampton replied, “It is precedence setting. It would be an argument (by future developers). It would not be binding, but it can be brought up.” Trustees rejected the lot split request, 7-0, and Shiffman sued the township.

U.S. District Judge George Steeh ruled in his summary judgement that “Plaintiff argues that because the Land Division Act leaves no discretion for a municipality to reject a proposed division that meets all of the Act's requirements, plaintiff has a constitutionally protected property interest. Plaintiff's interpretation of the Land Division Act is circuitous...The court finds that plaintiff does not have a constitutionally protected property interest in having its Lot Split Application approved. Defendant township was within its purview in making the determination under the terms of its ordinance that plaintiff’s Lot Split Application should be denied. Therefore, the township did not arbitrarily and capriciously deny plaintiff’s property or substantive due process interests.”

He said for those reasons, Shiffman's motion for summary judgement was denied and the township's motion for summary judgement was granted.

“One of the things we have in our ordinance is a harmony or compatibility requirement,” said township attorney William Hampton, who argued the case in federal court on Monday, February 5. “It's where you have an established neighborhood, it changes the whole feel and harmony of the neighborhood from the standpoint of the residents.”

In his opinion, Steeh cited an Appeals Court ruling based on a case Hampton had argued for the city of Bloomfield Hills based on the harmony requirement.

Hampton said the township feels very good about the court's ruling, “but my guess is they will appeal. They paid about $1.8 million for the three houses.”

If Shiffman does appeal, it would be heard by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

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