Municipal Zoning and the Little Guy
by Gregory Allan
This is a story of how the Little Guy fought city hall and won, or at least kept the wolves at bay long enough to accomplish his end game.
The "Little Guy" in this case was my grandmother. All the procedure was done by Yours Truly, in the year A.D. 2000. My strategy was based on my belief that zoning laws apply only to property actually owned by the regulating municipality, and does not apply to private property at-large which happens to fall within the corporate boundaries (also known as "city limits") of such a municipality. I believe municipalities use simple procedures found within the Uniform Commercial Code to snare people into complying with their zoning ordinances-- people who would otherwise not be subject to those ordinances.
For nearly thirty years, my grandparents lived in a ranch-style house in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
My grandfather was what I will affectionately call a packrat. As a young adult raising a family during the Great Depression, he learned to accumulate anything and everything he could, and to save it all. The house had a full basement, a full attic, and a two-car garage, all of which Grandpa had carefully packed full with various knick-knacks.
There was a large back yard which he had also put to good use. Stacks of building materials such as lumber, racks of storm windows, cabinets, etc. were neatly stacked over much of the yard. An old 1962 Cadillac sat in the driveway, parked facing the street so you couldn't tell it hadn't sported a license plate since 1974. The neighbors were spared from having to look at most of this booty by fences and hedges which shielded most of the yard.
My dad lived hundreds of miles south of Detroit, and had been trying unsuccessfully for years to get his parents to move to the more favorable climate, where he could be more help to them. Finally in 1999 the furnace in Grandpa's house gave out. His ample supply of stacked goodies in the basement made it difficult to even see the furnace, and impossible to repair it without spending days clearing a path. He and Grandma agreed to move south to live with my mom and dad. Dad and I drove to get them, and their immediate necessities.
We enjoyed a few months with both of them. Unfortunately Grandpa died that Christmas day. He and Grandma were both in their nineties. Grandma gave up her hope of someday moving back into the house, and we began making plans to clean it up and sell it.
The City Attacks
Along about February of 2000, a letter arrived from the city where the house was located (hereafter "City"), addressed to Grandpa. Dad opened it, and found it was from the City's zoning department. It contained a bill for $150.00, along with an explanation. Apparently the last time I'd been in the house, I had unknowingly broken a window in the attic. Grandpa had a fan in the window, plugged into the overhead light, which came on with the switch at the bottom of the stairs. Worked fine, I guess, when the window was open. But closed, the fan broke out the glass when the switch was turned on.
Someone had noticed the broken window. A representative from the City had come by the house several times to try and find someone home. They'd checked the Post Office and found a change of address. No one could be reached, and they assumed the house was abandoned. So they sent somebody out to board up the window. Thus, the bill for $150.00.
Dad was actually a little grateful, and figured he'd just pay them. That is, until a few days later when he got a second letter. That one wasn't nearly so friendly. It mentioned the car in the driveway, and several of the items in the backyard, and declared that Grandpa was in violation of this and that section of the City's zoning ordinance. The letter gave him thirty days (until about the middle of March) to correct the violations, or else the City would fine Grandpa $50.00 per day until the violations were corrected. After thirty-days they would hire someone to haul the offending items away and charge Grandpa for the service. If the fines were not paid, they would be converted into a lien on the property.
That was when Dad called on me.
We had intended to clean the place out over the summer (we figured it would take all summer, and it pretty much did), and that we'd be able to put it up for sale sometime in the fall. But even beginning something, anything with it before the first of June just wasn't possible for us. Southern Michigan is covered with a couple feet of snow in February. And it usually hasn't even begun to melt until well into March. Not to mention that anyone who was in a position to do something with the property was hundreds of miles away.
The problem, of course, was completely manufactured by the City. The property had looked pretty much the way it did now for more than ten years. None of the neighbors had complained. Nothing in the yard was dangerous, or could even remotely be considered an attractive nuisance. So what was the emergency? The only emergency was the money the City intended to steal from Grandma.
What to Do?
To begin, I had to respond to their first letter, the $150.00 bill. Even though Dad didn't mind paying that one, I decided both letters were connected. Paying the $150.00 would amount to admitting the City had the right to fix the window, which in turn might be an admission they had the right to charge us with zoning violations.
So I sent the City a bill for $200.00. I told them that although their intentions may have been good when they boarded up the window, nevertheless they were trespassing. Furthermore, the nails they had driven into the window frame had caused considerable damage, and I estimated it would take at least $200.00 to fix it. Please tender payment within thirty-days. Unpaid balances more than thirty-days past-due will accrue interest at a rate of seven-percent per annum.
Then, in a separate letter, came my response to their notice of zoning violations. My main motivation at this point was to stall for time. I knew if I could stall them for four or five months, we'd have the property cleaned up anyway. But I also knew that if I simply asked for time they would smell weakness. The game would be lost.
So in this first letter I approached them very gently. I made a few simple statements, and asked a few simple but powerful questions.
I (writing as my Grandmother) told them I had owned the house and land for thirty years; that I had seen an abstract of title for the land and that as far as I knew I was the only one in the chain of title with a claim to it. All mortgages had been paid off years ago. I told them I was puzzled. I just didn't understand. Their claims made it sound as though they owned the property, and I was only a tenant. I demanded that they disclose any right, title, or interest the City might have in my property.
The City responded within a few days, with a letter which made reference to the specific zoning ordinances they had cited. They enclosed copies of the relevant ordinances, and I think they even highlighted certain passages. Then they repeated their threats, but extended the time before they would start assessing the fine until June 1st. Already, we'd bought some time.
When I wrote back I was a little more pert. I told them that nowhere in their letter had they claimed any right, title, or interest in my property, and thanked them for admitting by their silence that it was mine. I asked them for the implementing regulation which made my property subject to their zoning ordinance.
Their next response didn't come so quickly. I think maybe they consulted an attorney this time. They responded with a letter including a copy from another page of their zoning plan. The gist of their response was that all "city property" was covered by the zoning ordinance, and that all "city residents" were subject to the ordinance. By now it was already the first week of April. They extended our time to July 1st.
In my response, I told them it appeared to me that "city property" was simply property which the City owned, and that they had already admitted they didn't own my property. As for "city residents," weren't they people who lived on city property? I told them I had been giving this a good deal of thought, and the only way I knew of that they could claim that I, as a person, was subject to their ordinance would be if they owned some right, title, or interest in me. I asked them to please send me any evidence of their ownership in me, if any such evidence existed.
Their patience was at an end. They fired a letter straight back at me. This one was simple and to the point. It didn't address any of the issues I had raised, it simply said the fines would begin on July 1st if compliance was not met.
My dad's attitude was grim, and matter of fact. He thanked me for buying us what time I had, and said he would start trying someone he could hire to clean up the yard before the deadline. I asked him to let me sleep on it, and we'd talk about it tomorrow.
The next day I told him I had an idea for another letter. I grabbed a pad of paper and asked Dad to try and remember everything that was in the yard. After we'd listed about a dozen items he looked at me with wide eyes and said, "You're not going to send them that list are you?" "Yes," I said, "I am."
"Well," Dad said, "Let's not put that last thing on there, we don't want them to know about everything that's out there."
Dear Reader, this is a common mistake. The Uniform Commercial Code is all about being honest, dealing in good faith, and making full disclosure. You must resist your natural tendencies to hide, or even minimize the facts.
I told Dad we were going to list every single thing we could remember from the yard. I begged his patience, and said I'd explain once the list was made. In the end, we had a list of outrageous proportion. More than a hundred items. "Now," I said, pointing at the first item, "how much would you say this is worth?"
Item by item, we built a price list. When the items were totaled, it came to just short of eighteen thousand dollars. Even I was surprised. I think by now, Dad was starting to suspect where I was going with this.
My last letter to the City thanked them for their prior letter which, by its silence, admitted they had no right, title, or interest in my person and that I was not, therefore, subject to their zoning ordinance. I went on to say that as they might be aware, I had a number of building materials stored on the property. I told them that I had plans for those materials and did not wish to sell them. However, if the City wanted to buy them then I would be willing to sell at certain specific prices. An inventory with price list is attached. Further, we would be willing to extend credit to the City on a "thirty days same as cash" policy. They could come and get items as needed, and we would send them an invoice. If any items were found missing, we would assume in good faith that the City had elected to purchase them, and send an invoice accordingly.
I also sent some No Trespass Signs to a friend and asked him to post them around the backyard.
We never received another letter. July 1st came and went, and none of our building materials came up missing. By September we had the property cleaned out anyway, and listed for sale.
I'm not suggesting this strategy will thwart the buzzards forever. Maybe yes, maybe no. But it accomplished what we needed, at no more cost than a couple of stamps and the time to write a few letters.
(Isaiah 33:22) For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us.
Copyright 1996, 2014, by Gregory Allan; All rights reserved.