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Dispute Escalates Over Migrant Housing

Torres family in new digs at Loy Putney's housing for farm workers
Torres family in new digs at Loy Putney's housing for farm workers


A Benzie County fruit grower isn’t waiting any longer for the Village of Elberta to issue him a permit. Over the weekend he moved a few seasonal workers into a vacant motel he’s been renovating on the edge of the town.

The units passed state inspection to house migrant labor. But they haven’t passed muster with the village.

 Waited Long Enough

Loy Putney has been fighting with the village of Elberta over a permit for more than a year. He alleges the delays are because officials don’t want migrant workers living in town.

But Elberta officials strongly insist Putney’s application is incomplete.

Putney’s family has been farming in Benzie County going back more than a hundred years. He has nine properties where he grows mostly apples, cherries and peaches. And he hires a couple of dozen seasonal workers each year to help bring in the crops.

Last year, he bought a vacant brick building that used to be a motel, and before that a grade school. He has plans to convert the motel rooms into larger living spaces complete with kitchens and appliances. And there will be a large common room for all the families to use that used to be the school cafeteria.

But since then he’s been back and forth wrangling with Elberta officials trying to get a permit. And Putney says he can’t afford to wait anymore.

“We’ve been a year and four months. And I have to start doing something. I just can’t wait around forever,” Putney says. “So I just moved them in and they can take it up with the state.”

Still Needs Permit

State inspectors for migrant housing approved the first two living units in Putney’s building last Friday. So he moved the families in over the weekend.

The village attorney says state rules for agricultural labor camps don’t supersede local zoning requirements. And Putney still needs a village permit before he can occupy the building.

The state inspector, in a letter, says zoning is not something that the migrant labor housing looks at or requires to issue a license.

Putney agrees he may have jumped the gun. “Why worry. I don’t worry about things like that,” he says. “ I mean I might get a fine or something. I’m not really too worried about going to jail.”

Last year Putney took the village to court, mainly because he sees a deliberate attempt to scuttle his project. Part of the delay in getting a permit in a timely way is due to missteps Putney has made.

Judge James Batzer threw out Putney’s lawsuit because he had applied for migrant housing. But there is no such category in the village ordinance. In a hearing last December, Judge Batzer also encouraged Putney to reapply for apartments which are an allowable use.

“If the zoning ordinance says apartments, that’s part of the purpose, you can do it, nowhere is it forbidden, than you can do it,” Batzer said. The judge also said the village might apply some reasonable conditions to the project to protect public health and safety.

Need More Details

But since Judge Batzer’s ruling came out in early January, Putney and the village have been wrangling over what those conditions might be. Last week, the planning commission told Putney his application is incomplete.

Village attorney Edgar Roy sent Putney’s attorney a list of roughly three dozen items that need attention. Roy says these are just the usual things that are expected of any commercial development. Things such as outdoor lighting and driveway locations to landscaping.

Farmer Loy Putney thinks the village is asking for a lot of details that might apply to a new building but not to an indoor renovation. And he sees the village dragging things on into mid-summer.

But he needs a place to house eight more workers that he expects to arrive within a couple of weeks. So he took the action he did knowing that he might end up back in court.

“I think going to court maybe will get things done faster. They’ve had since January to do something about what they call an apartment and they still just now had their first meeting. That’s not what the judge had in mind,” Putney says.

Elberta officials would not comment for this report without consulting their attorney. And their attorney did not want to say what the next step would be without meeting with them.