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  • By Lisa Brody

Township wins Manor Road court appeal

The federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court's ruling in favor of Bloomfield Township in a case involving a developer who wanted to subdivide three lots in the Bloomfield Manor subdivision near Big Beaver and Woodward in the township but had been denied by a unanimous vote of the Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees in December 2016,

“We're delighted with the opinion and believe it has far-reaching impact for not only Bloomfield Township, but for other municipalities as well,” said Bloomfield Township Attorney Bill Hampton.

At the board of trustees meeting on December 12, 2016, Patti Voelker, planning, building and ordinance director, explained that developer Matt Shiffman of GMS Development Holding Company 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.

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.

In writing for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Raymond Kethledge said, “Here the township found that GMS' proposal would violate the ordinance because the smaller new lots would not be 'compatible' or 'harmonious' with the other, much larger lots in the neighborhood. Local governments make that sort of judgement every day, and nothing about the township's reasoning here allows us to deem its decision constitutionally arbitrary...The district's court judgement is affirmed.”

“Number one, this will have far-reaching effects and implications on residential subdivision in the township,” Hampton said. “If this happens in other areas of the township, residents can rely on our ordinance to preclude similar situations where developers may try to do the same thing.”

Second, he said, was the last sentence of Kethledge's opinion: “This is simply a dispute about which the federal Constitution has nothing to do.”

“I think what he is saying is the federal government should not be interfering with local zoning,” Hampton stated. “That's a great thing.”

Hampton reassured residents, “Bloomfield Township has always enforced its ordinances in such a way as to preserve the residential character of its community.”

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