Judge Blasts Village Officials Over Migrant Housing
A judge in Benzie County last week tore into the Village of Elberta for how they’ve handled a dispute over housing for migrant workers.
The case has dragged on for more than a year. There have even been allegations of racial bias.
Loy Putney owns several fruit farms in Benzie and Manistee Counties. Last winter he bought an old motel on the outskirts of Elberta. He wants to convert it to house migrant families.
But he says he met resistance from village officials from the outset. Among his complaints is that they wouldn’t give him a copy of their zoning rules for housing.
And that was one of the points that really set off Circuit Court Judge James Batzer.
“This is absolutely ridiculous. This is an outrage,” Batzer said. “This is an absolute outrage that any citizen can’t go in to the village office and say to the village clerk I want a copy of the zoning ordinance.”
Village officials do say they made a copy for Putney later.
But the main question here was whether the Village of Elberta could deny the permit Putney applied for.
The attorney for the village, Edgar Roy, argued that Putney kept changing his mind about what he wanted to do with the old motel. “He likes to suggest that the Village likes to pick and choose what it wants to apply,” Roy said. “But he has picked and chosen multiple requests to the village.”
What Putney actually applied for was a permit for “labor housing.” But since there’s no such category, Elberta officials denied the permit. Judge Batzer ruled that most of what Elberta did was technically correct.
But it was not victory for the village.
Batzer said the case was really about a failure to communicate. If the village wasn’t clear on what Putney wanted, the judge said, why not ask him? Or better yet, ask for a drawing of the plan?
Attorney Roy tried to argue that Putney could have tried to straighten things out. But Judge Batzer wasn’t having any of that. “All he wants is a land use permit. It’s not up to him to amend an ordinance,” he said.
Racial Bias an Element
The judge also seemed aware of an undercurrent of what could be racial bias in this case. Most migrant farm laborers are Hispanic Americans or they come from Mexico or Central America.
At one meeting a village council member said he didn’t want Putney coming in to run a “trash house”. Judge Batzer says people are entitled to their personal opinions. But that can’t be the official position of the Village of Elberta.
“In fact it would offend the constitution of the State of Michigan and the United States to put a condition on that agricultural workers cannot live in apartments in the Village of Elberta,” the judge said.
Opens Door for a Different Permit
Judge Batzer said what the village ordinance clearly allows are apartments. And that’s pretty much what Putney is proposing to build.
So the judge said if Putney wants to apply for a permit to build apartments, village officials will have to respond and in a timely way. And Batzer said Elberta can’t zone out the use of apartments because they’re for farm laborers.
So after the hearing Loy Putney finally saw some relief coming even though technically he lost the case. “It’s about time something happened. It’s been over a year,” he said.
And he plans to have a couple of apartments ready when the first of his workers arrive in the spring.