After a two-hour, lively discussion on July 8, the Van Buren Township Board of Construction Appeals granted the appeal of the developer of Cobblestone Ridge Villas on West Huron River Drive.
He no longer is ordered to fill in the open basements that have been there since 2005, but there are some stipulations and he has 30 days to comply.
He has to encircle the seven open basements with 4’ high vinyl-coated cyclone fencing, cemented in with locked gates. He also has to pump out the 4’ of water in some of the basements, clean up the straw, bricks, steel and other construction debris, and install green barrier areas.
Harlan Davenport, chairman of the board, said he would be out there keeping an eye on the developer’s work. If the work isn’t done within 30 days, the board will meet again to consider ordering demolition of the basements.
Joe Paluzzi of Michigan Homebuilders has promised to do the work so he doesn’t have to knock down and fill in the basements. He emphasized he has a big investment in the project.
At one point, Davenport made a motion to order Paluzzi to demolish the basements, but the other two board members – Bob Coppock and William Osier – did not second the motion.
Davenport also said he would like to see a hefty cash bond to assure Paluzzi would comply, but Coppock said, “No bond for me.”
Coppock showed sympathy for the builder’s situation, saying they are all builders on the board and they all know how hard the current economy has been for them.
“I understand the situation he’s in. It’s dead. I feel for you, I do,” Coppock said.
Matt Forster, VBT building official, said he ordered the demolition of seven building foundations installed in 2005, which would have three to four townhouse units in each.
He said the job was abandoned for more than two years and because of a lack of attention, there is standing water in some of the basements, which is a drowning hazard; there are complaints of odors; and freezing temperatures over the years have caused damage to the basements.
Forster said all the permits expired in 2005-6 and the last inspection was Dec. 1, 2005. Since then work was abandoned, he said. He noted the orange fencing around the foundations has fallen down and there is construction material left on the sites, with the brick and stone causing blight problems.
Forster said he sent certified mail to the address on file at the township and it was returned. He sent the mail to the name on the tax roll and that, too, was wrong. He finally posted the properties on May 18-19 and someone alerted the developer and Michigan Homebuilders called the township about May 20.
Davenport said under the rules, the developer had the right to appeal and he did.
Paluzzi said he definitely didn’t predict what happened to the economy and he didn’t expect to still be involved with those building sites five years later.
He said he would like to bring the foundations up to the proper conditions, because he still wishes to use them. He said demolition is a drastic order.
A man from Jaeger Engineering told the board the concrete still has structural integrity.
Paluzzi said he would like to clean up the sites, remove the straw, fix the orange fencing, and get the sites back to the proper conditions. He said they intend to complete 30 or so units.
“It’s five years later,” Davenport said. “Why has it come to this? I drove by … it is unsightly. Nothing is maintained… We three are contractors and we know we have to protect the public any way we can.”
Forster repeated that the foundations have been in for five years and there has been a complete lack of maintenance for 12 months.
“Five years is a long time,” Davenport repeated. “We’re trying to weather the storm like everyone else … You did not come forward without having to come to us for an appeal…”
Osier noted that Forster gave the board pictures of Paluzzi’s Celtic Farms community that is being built in Flat Rock.
“If you can build houses, you can maintain your development here,” Osier said. “If I left a project like that, I’d be feeling pretty guilty right about now.”
“We haven’t thrown our hands up,” Paluzzi said. “We wouldn’t be here today if we had.”
Coppock asked Paluzzi what he planned to do and he said he would “re-maintain the fences” and install 6’ chain link fences around the open basements with construction barrier, so people wouldn’t be able to see into the lots. He would contain and maintain the site.
Paluzzi complained that the homeowners association for Cobblestone is “upsidedown.” He said 46% of the residents are not paying their association fees, while he has snow removal, insurance, and maintenance to cover.
“I’m glad those pictures were presented,” Paluzzi said of his development under way in Flat Rock. He said he started that six years ago and five homeowners are living there and eight new homes are under construction.
He said he worked with the bank there and that made way for the project. He said the “bank here is harder.”
“We don’t have anyone knocking on our doors to buy,” he said.
“You can protect that property,” said Davenport. “But it’s still a visual eyesore. I know I wouldn’t want to see that for the next 5, 6 years.” He added that he wouldn’t consider a construction barrier fence because it is unsightly.
“I’m look for ways to try to work this out,” Davenport said.
He said, “We have a problem with the hardship, but you waited a long time to come to us. To wait 12 months …”
Paluzzi said, “We received nothing until May of this year.”
Forster said another site manager was out there and the warning was verbal. “We tried to light a fire,” Forster said, presenting pictures from June 15, 2009. “You can see there were maintenance issues then.”
Forster said, “As a building official, I took responsibility to have houses built safely. It’s my duty to the citizens of our community.”
Forster said in 2005, Paluzzi pulled permits for all those lots to beat the water rate increases and Paluzzi said that was so and that the cost would have been four times greater had they waited.
“We had 62 units to absorb,” Paluzzi said. “Not only did we have to pull permits, but we poured garage footings, and installed plumbing. We felt the absorption rate would be five months.”
He said the project was not phased and all was done in one push.
“It made practical, common sense to do that,” Paluzzi said. “The intention was to build them all.”
“You beat the water rates by putting in all the basements at once,” Forster said. “I think we have to come up with a better plan so people don’t have to look at that for 10 years.”
Forster said the township had to cut the grass there twice this summer.
He said the Michigan Building Code and Property Maintenance Code gives two options: demolition or bring it up to code, keep the basements dry and pumped out and renew the building permits and get active with building within a reasonable time.
Paluzzi asked if he was the only developer with problems and if there were others in the community. Forster replied that the township sent several notices at the same time.
He said Country Walk, built by Bernie Glieberman, went back to the bank and they sold it to builders who completed the work.
“Is there anyone like me with 30 units that need to be started?” Paluzzi asked, and Forster said no.
Forster said he would like to see a “good chunk of bond” put up to ensure the work.
Davenport said the appeals board last met 10 years ago or more, so they were out of practice. He asked for input from the audience.
Bob Marion said he and his wife Theresa have lived at Cobblestone for four years and they’ve watch it all happen.
“Nothing I’ve heard from the developer accounts for the blatant neglect of the property. He owes $9,000 back electrical bills, so their meter is locked out.
“… He has a track record of not doing anything … He sold the properties and the way to deal with the purchasers is to ignore their concerns … Animals fell in and we have to call the township because there is standing water in the foundations. He has not taken the time to come out and see…
“This builder, when we first moved in, had $100 a month association fees. Why should residents pay the fees when they get nothing in return?” Marion asked. “Year after year after year of neglect and disinterest in the people who bought his properties. He has done nothing to demonstrate he will change.
“You chose to pay association fees for unpaid, unbuilt properties and then raised the rates arbitrarily to $145,” Marion said, adding that the developer has to pay the difference.
He said only four out of the 24 people who live there aren’t up to date so the 46% figure is not true.
Theresa Marion said the developer said he would come out and clean up the area, but for four weeks nobody’s lawn was cut and residents had to rent, borrow, and buy lawnmowers to do the work that is supposed to be taken care of by the association.
“The township will make him do it,” Coppock said.
Resident Elroy Szabo said, “I think you should deny the appeal. He’s basically abandoned the project. We have 24 units without any representation as an association.” He said Paluzzi violated the rules by not auditing the books and is in arrears to several vendors and doesn’t address the issues in the development.
“All the basements are flooded, the fencing is down, and he hasn’t checked,” Szabo said. “He’s basically thumbed his nose at Van Buren Township. I feel you should deny his appeal.”
When Coppock asked if the sales site is open, Paluzzi said it no longer is manned because there is no traffic.
“Maybe the best answer is to throw my hands in the air and just walk away,” Paluzzi said.
Residents said they have seen people come up to the sales office and then leave when they find no one there.
Paluzzi said this is an $18 million project and they had to pave part of Hoeft Road.
In other business, the board voted to approve the township rules as presented and officially voted Davenport in as chairman.