By Rosemary Horvath
The Garfield Township meeting had everything Feb. 22. A packed house of more than a hundred recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the Star Spangled Banner at the prompting of Supervisor David Byl, on clarinet. “Nice touch,” a woman said.
Byl pulled out what some call “the little red book,” a township official’s “bible.” He read a section on authority and responsibility of a supervisor to make clear he was authorized to conduct a meeting and limit public comment to specific periods of the agenda to avoid a free-for-all debate and argument. An electronic timer kept pubic comment to three minutes.
The near-capacity crowd came prepared to either support or oppose a proposed dangerous building ordinance that Byl had introduced about four months ago. The ordinance, variations of which has been adopted by multiple Michigan municipalities, is designed to exercise local control on deciding whether to raze dilapidated, abandoned buildings that could be dangerous to the general public. Some places have residents residing, even without running water and electricity.
Those opposed to the ordinance spoke of government overreach, interference in private property ownership and argued it’s nobody’s business what they or anyone else does.
The event, however, proved anticlimactic. Treasurer Robin Yarhouse and Clerk Joan Farwell agreed they were not ready to pass the ordinance as is. Trustee Lisa Roland, noticeably perturb about certain details, called for a vote. Yarhouse seconded the motion.
Byl and Trustee Mark Irvin joined the three others in killing the ordinance.
The swift action left many onlookers puzzled. “Explain to us what just took place,” questioned one man.
“As an ordinance, this one will never be passed,” explained Irvin, who much later in the 2-hour meeting questioned the meaning of dilapidated buildings and blight.
Irvin implied the township board would strive to come up with language for another proposal “that works” for Garfield Township.
Rowland said she was appalled that the ordinance would require a land owner to notify the township if a building or structure was to remain unoccupied for 180 consecutive days, or longer. This would be properties not for sale, lease, or rent. «I could not justify this,» she said. “This was not good.”
Area attorney Ghazey Aleck explained the township business owners who hired him were concerned about property rights and the potential for abuse because the proposal as written was not clear or concise enough. He encouraged officials to draft a document that doesn’t over reach because “people here are rugged individuals. Give people time and they will take care of their property.”
Aleck said “have too many controls on property and you could end up like White Birch Lake (in Surrey Township) where there are too many restrictions and people don›t want to buy there.”
He offered his assistance to help make a new ordinance better, “not make it worse,” he said.
While some people accused Byl of expecting everyone to have $200,000 homes, or inspecting private homes, or forcing folks of limited incomes into debt, a few audience members appealed to their neighbors to please clean-up the township.
Mardi Dysinger, known to single-handedly collect road trash for disposal, showed a photo of a plastic pop bottle she picked up off a road with other trash. She learned the bottle was an “active pot cooker” used to manufacture meth.
“I could have been killed or blinded,” when she was overcome with fumes, she said.
Sgt. Aaron Miller, Clare County Sheriff›s Department, who was standing guard at the meeting, explained the manufacturing of methamphetamine “has become an epidemic everywhere.”
He said if a discarded container is found without its labels, “…call police. Meth is becoming more common and they›ve created more ways of cooking it. This is happening throughout the country. It is scary. We need help from you, because police can›t do it alone.”
Anyone reporting a suspicious nature to the sheriff›s office is not required to divulge their identity. Clare County participates in the six-county Bay Area Narcotics Enforcement Team. Drug trafficking investigations are handled by the BAYANET team.
Sgt. Miller said people have been found walking around a big-box store cooking meth in a bag or in a car. «It can happen anywhere,» he said.
Data from the sheriff’s department for Garfield Township lists one drug overdose in 2011 and 2012. There were seven in 2013, two in 2014 and one in 2015.
The number of suicides were 5, 7, 5, 8 and 12 for those years. Undersheriff Dwayne Miedzianowski said suicides can be ruled accidental or attempted. Some are related to drug or alcohol addictions.
Dysinger appealed to authorities to “hold landlords and owners accountable. I don›t want to live in a pigsty.”
She reminded the audience no one can build a house or put in a septic system any way they want, because there are laws.
That›s when a man who identified himself as Jim Monaghan, chaplain for the Michigan Militia, showed a list of legal documents declaring blight ordinances unconstitutional. Monaghan said he lives in Washtenaw County and owns property in Garfield Township.
Anti-blight cases have been fought out in court. As explained in the Court of Appeals opinion Monaghan distributed, “Municipal ordinances are presumed to be valid. A party attacking the constitutionally of the ordinance has the burden of showing that it bears no substantial relationship to the public health, morals, safety or general welfare of the municipality.”
In other words, a municipality has grounds to safeguard a community.
Some people at the meeting objected to the township wanting to avoid an expensive court proceeding. The dangerous building ordinance would have empowered the township board to work with property owners to improve the conditions of a property without hiring an attorney and taking the landowner to court, which is both expensive and time-consuming.
Lori Ware, director of Clare County Community Services, delivered an encouraging bit of news.
Her department has an ample amount of grant dollars and low-interest loans through state and federal programs to help property owners replace a roof, make home improvements, put up siding and install new windows. There is assistance for replacing a well and septic system.
Property taxes and homeowner’s insurance have to be up-to-date, so if you need help, contact the county’s community development office, she said.
Ware was appointed late last year by the Board of Commissioners to write grants and assist units of government. She is also director of Senior Services.
Supervisor Byl noted that Ware was instrumental in writing a grant for a new fire engine the township recently received. She spoke in support of Byl, saying “Dave’s agenda is to make things better and do the right thing. He has everyone’s best interest at heart.”