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February 19, 2013

State Supreme Court spurns appeal request on Eagle sale

By Eric Czarnik
C & G Staff Writer

WEST BLOOMFIELD — For the third time, a court has ruled that a plaintiff lacks standing to file a lawsuit over a property sale leading to the proposed development of a Muslim cultural center near the 14 Mile and Middlebelt intersection.

Plaintiff attorney Robert Davis expressed his disappointment in the Michigan Supreme Court’s early February decision, which denied an opportunity to get the case’s merits heard.

Davis told the Beacon that his client technically has the option to file for a motion for reconsideration but wasn’t going to pursue that route, adding that such motions are very rarely fruitful.

“I think my client, at this point, has exhausted all his legal attempts to get the merits of the case before a court,” Davis said. “The citizens of the community have never heard the real merits of what went on here.”

In June 2011, the Farmington Public Schools district approved the sale of the former Eagle Elementary School site to the Islamic Cultural Association of Franklin for $1.1 million.

That July, Farmington Hills resident Eugene Greenstein and West Bloomfield resident Melvin Sternfeld, who live close to the school site, filed their lawsuit against the school district and school board.

The lawsuit, originally filed in Oakland County Circuit Court, objected to what it said was procedural violations and a lack of transparent structure to the sale process.

But since then, a county judge, the Michigan Court of Appeals and now the Michigan Supreme Court have all agreed that the plaintiff side lacked standing to sue, thereby denying the case a full hearing.

According to Davis, Sternfeld is a well known real estate professional who knew a developer that wanted to build luxurious apartments on the property.

However, Davis said, his client never had an opportunity to present an offer — while the ICA was able to acquire the site without a formal bidding process.

Davis added that he wrote the district a four-page letter prior to the sale’s approval, asking officials to table the matter and outlining reasons not to proceed.

“All we ever wanted to do was present to a court what happened here and how it was wrong and how it violated (the district’s) own rules,” he said.

The Farmington Public Schools school district has repeatedly denied that it did anything wrong.

David Ruhland, associate superintendent for instructional support services, said the district is pleased that the state Supreme Court decided not to take up the case. If the plaintiff side chooses not to file a motion for reconsideration, the district can begin to use the $1.1 million that came from the sale, which was held in escrow during the litigation, he said.

“We’re hopeful that we can move forward,” Ruhland said. “They have a million ideas tied up that we could be putting up for kids.”

Ruhland also said the district lawfully carried out the sale, and officials feel that they have been good stewards of the community’s resources.

“Opinions can differ as to how we should have handled things,” he said. “The fact remains that board policies and procedures were followed, and there was no lack of transparency.”

Shereef Akeel, an attorney for the Islamic Cultural Association, also was happy with the high court’s decision. “My client remains hopeful that it now can move forward in building some type (of) center that can benefit the entire community,” he said.

ICA representatives plan to build an estimated 52,000-foot Muslim cultural center on the former Eagle Elementary School’s property. The building plans include a multipurpose section and a mosque.

In 2012, ICA representatives showed their site plans to the West Bloomfield Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals. Neither township panel has given final approval yet, and the West Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees would ultimately need to approve the plan before it could be fulfilled.

Learn more about Farmington Public Schools at www.farmington.k12.mi.us or at (248) 489-3349.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Eric Czarnik at eczarnik@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1058.