I spent my elementary school years in Worth Township, Sanilac Co., Michigan. Upon passing through in the afternoon of Christmas Day, I noticed the sort of large homemade signs generally created by Peasants With Pitchforks, decrying the “Marcy tax” and seeking the recall of one Marcella Bartniczak. Being curious about such things, I asked my dad what was going on, and then this morning read a full article in The Detroit Free Press about the adventure. It also happens that, it being 2010, said Peasants With Pitchforks have a website, from which the following quotes were taken.
Our story begins in 1998, when George and Margaret Paeth bought a cottage in Worth, and proceeded to renovate it. Now, a great many cottages in the lakeside subdivisions of Worth need renovating; they were built to be summer lodgings for Detroiters and did not need to be large or cold-proof. The Paeths got all the proper paperwork from the county and the township zoning official, and proceeded on their project.
After nearly five (5) years of construction on the home and reliance on the various permits, including the one issued by Worth Township, Ms. Cutcher notified the Paeths, for the first time, that the structure they had built required a variance from the side set back requirements of approximately two (2) feet from the Worth Township Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Despite assurances from Township Supervisor Ed Smith that the variance would be approved by the ZBA and the hearing was a “mere formality,” the ZBA refused to issue the non-use variance and instructed the Paeths to tear down their home and move it two (2) feet, six (6) inches eastward.
So they sued in Sanilac Circuit Court, not once but three times. Each time, the court remanded the case to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which used various subterfuges to screw the Paeths, until finally after 3 years the Court issued the variance itself, which was upheld upon appeal by the MI Court of Appeals. At this point, Worth Zoning notified the Paeths that they would not appeal further to the Michigan Supreme court. Instead, Ms. Cutcher posted a stop work order on the property, without notice or opportunity to respond, claiming later that the original building permit had expired.
Even after the State of Michigan notified Defendants that the 2003 building permit never expired, the Defendants will not remove it. Defendant Worth Township abandoned its Building Department and fired Ms. Cutcher. No one within Worth Township will remove the stop work.
Hence, another lawsuit, this time in Federal court.
Quoting now from the judges’ various findings:
The plaintiffs’ troubles with Worth Township began in earnest in 2002, when the township formed its own building department. Barbara Cutcher had become the Worth Township Zoning and Building Administrator…
In short, having formed a government, that government had to find somebody to govern.
Cutcher testified that Township Clerk Marcy Bartnicziak instructed her to post the order….ZBA chairman Thomas Gilbert also confirmed that Marcy would usually go “to great lengths to get her way,” and that she has done things out of spite even with respect to Mr. Gilbert himself. …The involvement of the township officials eventually came to a dramatic end. Cutcher pleaded guilty to forgery of assessment documents in an unrelated matter, and she was disciplined by the State of Michigan for “falsif[ying] Clyde Township Board of Review documents by cutting and pasting Board of Review members’ signature onto Board of Review affidavits and a Board of Review Report.” Pls.’ Mot. for Summ. J., Ex. 20. The township treasurer, [first name] Shade, was convicted of embezzlement. The township’s building department was dissolved by the State of Michigan in July 2008. Cutcher did not remove the stop work order until October 2008, notwithstanding the State of Michigan’s letter sent to the township on May 22, 2008 directing the order to be removed. In the meantime, for two years while Sanilac County circuit court was considering the plaintiffs’ matter and until the stop work order was removed, the plaintiffs agreed not to undertake any construction on the property.
The summary judgement went before a jury:
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on the retaliation claim and awarded damages in the amount of $275,000. The jury separately awarded damages on the procedural due process claim in the amount of $325,000.
And then they went for attorney’s fees:
It is further ORDERED that the defendant shall pay attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs in the
amount of $201,097.79.
One small problem here…two actually. One was that the township was only carrying $100K of insurance for such matters. The second was that they were broke, having paid $2M for engineering fees for a state-mandated sewer system that was decided by the MI Court of Appeals to be an overreach of state power. Sooooo…
It is further ORDERED that defendant shall take proper steps to enroll the judgment on its next tax roll pursuant to Mich. Comp. Laws § 600.6093(1). The defendant shall sequester the funds collected, and neither party shall access the funds until further order of this Court.
This is the so-called “Marcy Tax”, which is equal to about 8x the township’s annual operating budget.
Now, this is all disastrous enough. But the township is facing a second lawsuit in the matter. Thomas Gilbert, former Chair of the Worth Township Zoning Board of Appeals, had testified in support of the Paeths. Suddenly, the roadside produce stand that he had been operating for several years was declared to be in violation of zoning. No other stands had been so condemned, and the enforcement is pre-empted by the Michigan Right to Farm Act.
OK, so that’s the news. Here’s the analysis:
1. We’re dealing with an area which is fundamentally rural. This is mostly about the small strip of land east of M-25; the west side of M-25 is farm and small businesses, such as this one.
2. I can’t believe, based on my experience, that there is a substantive amount of raw sewage going into Lake Huron from failed septic systems. Some, perhaps; the lake has a nasty habit of gobbling peoples’ lots. In any case, installation of a sanitary sewer and water system is about the least efficient means possible of dealing with the issue, and capable of abuse (it was one of the weapons used against the Paeths)
3. There has always been a certain tension between “the dudes”, as we called city-dwellers, and the permanent residents. They like to have things “the way they are in the city”, i.e., with somebody looking over your every move. “The city” was Detroit when I was growing up (lots of Polish firemen and the like), but is now purely suburban, since everyone who could get out of Detroit has done so.
4. Zoning is intrinsically evil.
5. Small people like power, and like to throw it around.
6. Barniczak claims that the recall is a personal vendetta. Well, as we’ve been told, the personal is political, and it was only a matter of time before the common man began to Alinskyate back. Apparently, she was not always capable of separating the personal from the political, so what’s sauce for the goose… and crying because her kids have to wait for the school bus by a sign calling for her recall? That’s rich. The Paeths had a hard time with neighbors too. so suck it up, or drive your kids 5-10 miles to school.