Moratorium placed on future Vinsetta lot splits

Current fights must play out in civil court

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published July 5, 2016


ROYAL OAK — Members of the City Commission agreed unanimously June 27 to impose a 180-day moratorium on lot splits in the Vinsetta Boulevard neighborhood while the Planning Commission looks into creating ordinances to protect the neighborhood’s integrity.

If future ordinances are adopted preventing certain lot splits or other changes in residential property, it would apply to future site plan approvals, not site plans already approved.

This was not what nearly 100 people from the Vinsetta neighborhood, who filled City Hall commission chambers, wanted to hear during the commission’s regular Monday night meeting.

The group was there in opposition to an approved plan by Realtor and developer Kevin Baird to split two lots he owns on Vinsetta Boulevard into four residential lots.

Baird said the group’s recent outcry was a little surprising to him, as the Vinsetta group appeared at a 2014 city of Royal Oak Zoning Board of Appeals meeting and showed support for the guidelines on lot width interpretation that the board affirmed in his recently approved site plan.

“It’s kind of unusual, in my opinion; the neighbors already showed up to support this interpretation of width,” Baird said. “And now they obviously are unhappy, but it’s something they already supported and the plan was really reviewed thoroughly through all of the departments … and it met the criteria.”

In lieu of every person taking their five-minute turn at the podium during public comment, the group elected to have Vinsetta Heights Property Owners Association spokesman Steven Palackdharry speak before the elected officials regarding city staff’s approval of a site plan submitted by a property owner to split two properties on Vinsetta Drive. Palackdharry lives next to the addresses at the center of the controversy.

Vinsetta Boulevard is known for its large properties boasting stately homes.

Plans were approved recently to split two Vinsetta addresses to allow four homes to be built on the properties. The plan would build four homes facing Vinsetta with long narrow lots stretching back to Webster Road.

“There is deep agitation in our community about the city’s recent decision to approve a lot split for the adjacent Vinsetta properties 2825 and 2833,” Palackdharry said. “I’m sure that the commission understands where this unrest comes from, since all of us feel that we are defending the place that we call home — we chose to call home — from an exploitive threat.”

Palackdharry expressed his disappointment with the approval because he said the lot measurements do not comply with current zoning ordinances, but rather were done using creative math. He was further disheartened to learn that if the city receives a certified plan, it cannot reopen and reassess what it is given.

“We pleaded with the city, ‘Please check the math,’” Palackdharry said. “But we were told by the city once the developer submits the survey, stamped and sealed, the city will not question it. End of story.”

Director of Community Development Timothy Thwing said Baird did jog the boundaries, but there is nothing that says lot lines cannot be at an angle. He said the city received a sealed survey, which would indicate compliance.

“When we have conflicting experts, and this isn’t the first time that we’ve had disputes in Royal Oak over property-line issues, the city doesn’t go in and become the third party and come up with a third opinion.

“At that point, the land dispute or property dispute is resolved between the private property owners,” Thwing said.

Palackdharry was told that property disputes were a civil matter and that the city cannot intervene or it would open itself up for lawsuits.

“It’s a matter for the private parties to resolve,” said Interim City Attorney Mark Liss.

Liss said city staff reviews professionally submitted documents to make sure they pass the smell test, but the city is not equipped to be a forensic agency and recalculate professionally accepted opinions.

The disputes between the association and Baird have been going on since 2014, when residents packed City Hall while Baird was submitting plans splitting the lots to build six to eight single-family homes on the two properties.

Those plans were scrapped for not complying with the city residential setback and lot width requirements.

Palackdharry said he hired two respected professionals that independently said the approved plans recently accepted by the city don’t meet the current zoning ordinances either.

He said association members were in shock that the city gave its approval.

Palackdharry wanted the city to suspend its approval, conduct an independent analysis and schedule a public hearing, to which the crowd erupted into long applause during the meeting.

“We are not anti-development,” Palackdharry said. “We want responsible development that accords with the rules, both the government laws and the deed restrictions between private homeowners.”

But city officials reiterated that they cannot take a closer look.

“If an application comes in that complies with the code, the city processes it,” Liss said.

Liss also explained that the city does not have the legal right to hold up an application once it is sealed and inspected by city officials.

“There are very few things that an elected body can do that will get them into hot water faster than weighing in on a zoning dispute,” said City Commissioner Sharlan Douglas. “Zoning issues are matters of inches, and they are the reason we have the professionals we have in our Planning Department.”

Douglas said, because this has been such a contentious issue, she knows that Thwing and the other staff planners and Liss have looked at it.

“Whether or not we are happy with the outcomes of what (Baird) is going to do, he is the legal owner of the land; he has proposed a lot split, which the staff, in their professional judgment, has determined is legal, and I don’t want this commission in any way to look like we are trying to influence this decision, because we’ll just get in trouble,” she said.

The homeowners association has a lawsuit, which has been in county court for more than a year, against Baird over deed restrictions governing the two properties, which the association states prevents lot splits.

Baird feels confident that the suit will be dismissed either through a settlement or by a judge in the next few months. He maintains that the two parcels are plotted for four lots.

“What we’re doing essentially is just returning it back to how it has always been intended: four homes across those four platted lots,” he said.

Baird said previous plans he provided would have maintained the two Vinsetta homes, which he said would maintain the character of the street, and construct two additional homes facing Webster Road.

“We have no intentions of further subdividing the property, and we have notified the VHPOA attorney to inform that of this fact in writing on numerous occasions — well ahead of the commission meeting — and agreed to this language as part of the lawsuit settlement dismissal or consent judgment,” Baird said.

Liss said that the city has no standing to enter into that dispute.