Residents take city to court, vow to stop new sidewalks

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published July 25, 2017

ROYAL OAK — A group of residents who recently filed a lawsuit against the city received a preliminary injunction July 19 to stop the installation of new sidewalks in their northern Royal Oak neighborhood.

According to court documents, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Michael Warren granted the injunction, which prohibits the city from installing sidewalks, removing trees or doing any nonemergency work next to the plaintiffs’ properties while the case is being adjudicated.

The order also prevents the city from working directly or indirectly on any aspect of its 2017 Sidewalk Improvement Program until further order of the court. 

The group of 28 residents who joined together to fight the city consider this their first victory.

The residents — represented by Sunnybrook Drive homeowner Michael Skinner — believe the city does not have the right to mandate that sidewalks be installed in their neighborhoods, and further believe that the city does not have the right to make the property owners pay for the sidewalk installation, which is costing some residents close to $10,000 because of the large lots in the area.

“It (the suit) specifically targets the city’s right to be able to go after us and charge us for the new sidewalks,” Skinner said.

Skinner said it is unfortunate that they have to fight with the city.

“They are going back and relying on ordinances that were written many years ago without really looking at them and seeing if they really apply and make sense,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we have to spend all the money to do this.”

The group has set up a GoFundMe page to collect legal fees.

City Attorney David Gillam said it is the city’s position that it has the right to do both.

“In terms of the city’s authority to have the sidewalks installed — as I pointed out to the judge during the hearing on Wednesday — we’re talking about the installation of public sidewalks within public right of way,” he said. “So I don’t think anyone can really dispute that the city has the authority to have the sidewalks put in.”

Gillam said that as far as the city requiring the residents pay for the sidewalk, the city’s position is that it is authorized to do that through state law, the city charter and the city code.

“So we feel there is authority for the city’s position, and we are going to defend that position all the way through the process,” he said.

Gillam said the group initially petitioned the court for a temporary restraining order, but that was denied, and instead they were told they could request a preliminary injunction that was ultimately granted.

“At that time the judge indicated that he didn’t feel that there was really any irreparable harm to the residents,” he said. “He saw the issue as only a money dispute. In his mind, at that point in time, was who is going to be responsible for paying for the sidewalks.”

The initial 64-page lawsuit was filed after a May 22 decision by the Royal Oak City Commission to approve sidewalk installation on Custer Avenue, North Washington Avenue, Glendale Avenue, Delemere Boulevard, Sunnybrook Drive, Bellevue Road, Woodside Road, Stephenson Highway and adjacent to three city parks. In total, 10 locations were identified for sidewalks this year.

Residents from all affected streets, with the exception of Stephenson Highway, spoke during a special public comment portion of the May 22 meeting. No one voiced opposition to sidewalks going in at Exchange Park, Optimist Park and Realtor Park. The city will be paying for the sidewalks on all park property.

City Manager Don Johnson said creating new sidewalks is part of a plan to make Royal Oak a walkable city with continuous sidewalks linking neighborhoods, schools, community facilities and the downtown.

“This year, 2017, is the final year of the current six-year, citywide sidewalk replacement improvement program,” he said in May, adding that the city was divided into sections at the beginning, and each year, an area has been focused upon.

About 62 locations have already been approved and, in most cases, completed. Exemptions for some homeowners have been granted in the past based on predetermined criteria set by the city.

Becoming a city of “complete streets” and enhancing safety officially became a priority when the City Commission voted in 2011 to become a city of sidewalks. In 2012, the complete-streets policy was added to the city’s master plan.

The Sunnybrook Drive group was granted an exemption from the sidewalk program in 2005 and members believed they should once again be exempt.

Skinner said residents in the area are also extremely disappointed with the decision to remove mature trees to build the sidewalks. He said he wished it didn’t have to come to this.

“None of us wanted to do this, but enough is enough,” he said. “We’ve been forced.”

The process has prompted Skinner to collect signatures to run for mayor in November’s election.

Gillam said he anticipates that the legal proceedings will take about two to three months before a final decision is reached.