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Holly Twp. family fights officials over citations

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Holly Township — A family's protracted fight with Holly Township officials ramped up Wednesday night with news they were being cited for blight and living inside a travel trailer on their wooded 10 acres of property between South Holly Road and the Shiawassee River.

Timm and Maria Smith appeared before the township board Wednesday night to oppose the action and a threat to cut off their electricity.

"I think it's despicable what you're trying to do to my family," Maria Smith told the board Wednesday night. "You are trying to crush us and it won't fly."

The Smiths believe township officials are trying to steal their property to build a riverside park but Supervisor Dale Smith denies it, saying the family has defaulted on a mortgage, violated ordinances and rejected township buyout offers.

The Smiths defaulted on a $138,000 note for their home and half the wooded acres they bought in 1989. Timm, a tradesman, broke his back at work and within a year, suffered a stroke. She works in elder care and as a master gardener but they could not keep up with payments.

They asked the courts for help but were evicted in October 2009 after the PHH Mortgage Co. foreclosed on their house and a 10-acre parcel. The mortgage company gave the foreclosure to the township for free and the Smiths are now living in a firewood-heated, modified trailer on adjacent property. The township wants to cut off their electricity, powered from an underground cable linked to a utility pole on township property. The Smiths have paid the electrical bill for two years but the township now says the arrangement is unsafe.

"The township offered to buy me out but I'm not selling," said Timm Smith, 57, of his remaining two parcels totaling 10 acres. "Not after what they've done to us."

Supervisor Smith, no relation to Timm or Maria, said township officials are sympathetic to the family's situation but are losing patience after battling with them for five years.

"The courts have ruled they don't have a case ... they seem to think they do," he said.

Oakland County Commissioner Robert Hoffman, R-Highland Township, believes the Smiths have been treated unfairly and possibly illegally.

"You have a legal, ethical and moral duty for your residents and in my opinion, your are violating the law," Hoffman told the board. "...You bullied the bank for their land and want more."

"They've been victims of a land grab," Hoffman said outside the meeting. "The township was gifted the property by the bank and their only interest now is getting the Smiths out so they can turn it into a park. They will do anything to get it."

Supervisor Smith and other officials point out that while the Smiths may own the land they're on, they and their 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter are living there in violation of township blight and safety ordinances.

In November 2010, the Smiths entered into their foreclosed home through an unlocked window and moved back in, according to court records. They filed their own lawsuit in Oakland Circuit Court in October 2010, moved back on the property on advise of their attorney. They were evicted in 2012.

This past August, Judge Colleen O'Brien ruled the township had governmental immunity and could not be sued for damages and dismissed other points in the Smith lawsuit. The Smiths have filed with the Michigan Court of Appeals.

After hearing of the plight of the Smiths, who live in his district, Hoffman became involved in 2012. He has obtained numerous township documents, including emails between officials and employees, which he believes shows an extraordinary effort to obtain the Smiths' property and a "paper trail" to take the land.

One email details a township plan in November 2009 to fine the bank $300 a day until the property was cleaned up. That same month — less than 30 days after the foreclosure — the bank turned the title to the foreclosed property over to the township for "zero dollars."

"How often do you hear of a bank giving away its property for nothing?" asked Hoffman.

The recent blight citation, dated Nov, 17, notes an Oct. 31 inspection of the Smiths property revealed blight, including trash and junk vehicles; using a travel trailer as living quarters; and building a shelter without first obtaining building permits.

The Smiths have until Dec. 17 to rectify violations or face fines and unspecified legal action to enforce compliance, according to a letter to their attorney.

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