Migrant Housing Plan Sparks Lawsuit
Plans to improve housing for migrant workers in Benzie County have erupted into charges of racism. A fruit grower wants to reuse a motel that sits vacant in the Village of Elberta.
Since the beginning of the year, village officials have come up with different reasons to deny him a permit. But, in a public meeting, one council member let loose that he doesn't want to see a "trash house" on that site.
Reusing An Old Eyesore
Loy Putney's family has been farming in Benzie County since 1865. He produces several million pounds of cherries, apples and peaches each year. And, as many growers do, he depends heavily on migrant labor to do the work.
Some of his older housing units are dilapidated and he planned to rebuild them this year. But last fall, as he drove past the vacant Bay View Motel, he had the idea of converting motel units for his workers.
"What we would do on some of these units, we'd combine them, make two units into one by putting a door between them," Putney says. "We'd take out one bathroom and put a kitchen where the bathroom is."
The brick building originally served as Elberta's elementary school. Then it was remodeled into a motel. But for the past four or five years it's been vacant. Putney says there's some mess to clean up but the structure is sound. And it would be a big step up from typical migrant housing. "It would be the best housing in northern Michigan," he says. "I can't hardly believe anyone would have better."
The Village Balks
Putney says he got a pretty positive reaction when he first told Village officials what he planned to do. But when he applied for a building permit he got a letter back denying it, saying there is no provision in the Village ordinance for migrant housing.
The he was told he would have to apply for a special use permit. When he asked for a copy of the zoning ordinance officials told him they didn't make copies available to the public. He asked if he could buy a copy and was told no.
Instead, he was given a few pages from the ordinance that lists possible special uses of the property, including transient housing. Putney figured that's what applied to him. But when he filed for that permit he was denied again. The zoning administrator told him the ordinance defines transient housing as being open to the public. Only officials hadn't given him the definition section of the ordinance so Putney couldn't know that.
No Special Permit Needed
By this time Loy Putney figured officials were giving him the runaround. So he hired his nephew Bradley Putney, an attorney, to represent him. Bradley twice asked for a review by the Village's zoning board and got nowhere. "It's become apparent that each action that's taken is another attempt to whipsaw Mr. Putney," he says.
Bradley Putney argues that his uncle's proposal doesn't need a special use permit in the first place. He says the Village ordinance allows state licensed housing facilities as a use by right. And, he contends, since migrant housing is licensed by the state and inspected every year the building permit ought to be issued without any special procedures.
But Village officials to date have not responded to that contention. And they have refused to comment to Interlochen Public Radio about any of this.
The last straw for Bradley Putney was an exchange he had with Elberta Village Council member Ken Holmes in a March 15th public meeting. Holmes reads from the ordinance about transient housing and he emphasizes that means housing open to the general public not for migrant workers.
"This means transient, period. That is our zoning. That was designed that way," Holmes says. "We didn't want just any rhubarb coming in there and making a trash house out of that place."
Bradley Putney says he was shocked and insulted by the comment. "I then clarified and said "a trash house". Ok let me write that down," he recalls saying. "A trash house you're not going to allow. There was complete silence in the room and the statement was never corrected by any village council member. And therefore they acquiesced to that statement," Putney asserts.
Putney took Holmes' remark to be a slur against both his uncle and migrant workers. And he thinks it's clear what's motivating Village officials. "And that is prejudice. That is racism," he says. "That is prejudice based on ethnicity. And that is why we're filing a circuit court lawsuit against the Village."
He also requested an investigation by the Michigan Civil Rights Department against the Village of Elberta. That investigation is underway.
Loy Putney says this has all gotten seriously out of hand. He thought he was going to do a good thing by cleaning up and reusing what has become an eyesore on the edge of town.
"I really came down here to not cause a big fuss, if you know what I mean," he says. "But it's turned into a civil war."