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Farmington Hills

October 3, 2012

Appeals court: Plaintiffs don’t have ‘legal standing’ in Eagle property suit

By Jessica Strachan
C & G Staff Writer

FARMINGTON HILLS — It was announced Sept. 21 that the Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld the Circuit Court decision that two local residents do not have legal standing to bring a suit in the matter of the former Eagle Elementary School.

The property is being sold to the Islamic Cultural Association, which has caused a stir among some residents and local community leaders since it was announced last June. With the court’s latest ruling, the dismissal has been upheld for the lawsuit seeking to overturn the sale.

Attorney Robert Davis, who represents Eugene Greenstein and Melvyn C. Sternfeld, the residents who live near the Eagle property and filed the suit against the Farmington Public Schools and Board of Education, said they’ll be looking to see what plaintiffs are more viable then.

“We were disappointed by the court’s decision, and we are evaluating an appeal process and the filing of a new lawsuit,” Davis said about the ruling. “The court basically said, ‘The plaintiff you gave us doesn’t have enough standing.’ But maybe there’s a plaintiff out there who does.”

For the district, the decision doesn’t equate to a final victory, as the $1.1 million from the sale will be held in escrow during the litigation process, but it is bringing it one step closer to moving forward.

“We are pleased to hear of the appellate court decision. We hope this puts us a step closer to resolving this matter,” Farmington Public Schools Superintendent Susan H. Zurvalec said in a statement. “Once this issue is resolved, it will make more than $1 million available to support the teaching and learning of our students.”

Davis said his clients have just under two months to appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court, should that be their next action, and they’ll be determining their next steps very soon.

He also said that in the meantime they will be directing their attention to challenging the local zoning processes, about which talks began during an Oct. 2 public hearing at West Bloomfield Town Hall.

The controversy began last year when the school board voted unanimously in June to sell Eagle Elementary School — one of four elementary schools closed at the end of the 2009-10 school year — to the ICA for $1.1 million. The price matched an appraisal the district commissioned, they said.

Some community members felt the property should have been put up for bid, however, and some accused the district of ignoring other potential buyers.

By July 2011, Greenstein, of Farmington Hills, and Sternfeld, of West Bloomfield, filed suit in Oakland County Circuit Court against the district and its Board of Education to stop the sale. The suit alleges that the board violated its rules and bylaws in making the sale, and it did not live up to its fiduciary duties or develop a process for the sale.

Sternfeld, who has a background of 50 years in real estate sales and negotiations, has said from the beginning that he is not concerned with the “religious aspect of it,” rather the “process issues” of the sale.

“In the end, it could be the Islamic Center that wins, that’s fine, but the process has to be right, as was described. It has to be in the best interests of the taxpayers, and the property offered has to be considered for alternate uses,” he said at a June 14 board meeting.

District officials maintain that the procedure has been fair and without any wrongdoing. They also said that the only offer to purchase the plot was made by the ICA.

The proposed cultural center at the site, located on the north side of 14 Mile, at Middlebelt, would boast an estimated maximum height of 40-45 feet due to a minaret. As part of an agreement, the center would not make any external noise for calls to prayer, officials said.

ICA has an estimated membership of about 150 adults looking for a larger center than the current Franklin location. The cultural center, which is planned as a 51,962-square-foot building that could cost up to $6 million, would include a mosque, a lobby and a multipurpose area for special events.

Staff Writers Eric Czarnik and David Wallace contributed to this report.