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Builder sues Oakland Township over elder housing denial

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A prominent developer and an ex-township official are suing Oakland Township for alleged discriminatory zoning practices against the elderly, the disabled and those of low to moderate income.

The Circuit Court lawsuit filed by Moceri/DM Investments and former supervisor Joan Buser seeks to have township zoning practices declared illegal. Moceri has been blocked from building a 282-unit Blossom Ridge development on 42 acres it owns in the township of about 17,000 residents in northeast Oakland County.

Proposed for the northwest corner of Adams and Dutton roads, all units would accommodate the elderly or disabled.

“It is outrageous what this township board has done,” said Dominic Moceri, who has built housing for more than 55,000 Michigan families over the past 60 years, including several luxury homes in Oakland Township, a primarily rural community north of Rochester which is largely vacant and undeveloped and bordered by several state parks and recreational areas.

“None of the township planners are against this and we thought we had an understanding with officials who granted site approval in 2013 over some objections,” he said. “But citizens voted new people into office — some who were vocal opponents — and they backed a referendum to instead deny us the rezoning.”

The referendum, held in August 2013, was about 2,000 against and 800 in favor of the project.

“Some of the exaggerated, unsubstantiated claims are absolutely shocking,” he said. “Reasons against us have included that because there are elderly or disabled people here there will be too many sirens disrupting the neighborhood. Or that caregivers coming and going from work will cause traffic jams. Or that people from urban areas may move here.”

Opponents have expressed fear the project will be a commercial development in a zoned residential setting and would ultimately affect roads, schools, public safety and property values.

“Because this involves pending litigation I have no comment,” Township Manager Warren Brown said Wednesday. Township Supervisor Terry Gonser also declined comment on advice of attorneys.

The township has only one other multifamily development, Silver Creek, a community of upscale condominiums which was built under a court consent order, Moceri said. Moceri, who along with his wife and five adult sons all live in the township, said 50 percent of the 5,900 houses in the community are valued at $500,000 or more, including dozens of million-dollar homes.

The area in question is limited by township ordinance “solely for low density single-family houses” which Moceri said is “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable, is supported by no facts or legitimate reasoning ... .”

Buser, who was the township’s elected supervisor for 18 years and former chairperson of the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments is 74 years old and living in South Carolina. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday but in the lawsuit alleges she would like to move back to Oakland Township but there is no housing there that can accommodate her special needs.

Moceri sent out a press release Wednesday claiming the U.S. Supreme Court ruling a month ago in a Texas case — that housing discrimination does not need to be intentional to be illegal — should have consequences on the Oakland Township issue.

“Federal and state law requires that you make some accommodations for the handicapped so they can participate in the community,” said Edward Kickham, a partner at Kickham Hanley, the firm representing Moceri. “Oakland Township has a long list of reasons why they don’t want paralyzed veterans and disabled people in the township; but the law is now crystal clear on this — you have to make an accommodation so that the disabled are not excluded, whether it was your intention to exclude them or not.

“Nevertheless, in this case we do intend to prove that Oakland Township intentionally and knowingly discriminates against the elderly and disabled.”

The township has expressed concern about the size of the Blossom Ridge plan but has also maintained any exclusion of the disabled or elderly was unintentional.

Moceri’s release cited a federal housing discrimination complaint it has before Judge Terrence Berg. There is also a separate complaint by the Michigan Paralyzed Veterans in federal court also filed in December 2014, which has joined with the Moceri complaint.

The township has no accommodations for the disabled or the elderly and has no land zoned for multifamily development, according to the latest lawsuit. Its zoning restrictions are so narrow, restrictive and exclusionary that they serve to exclude multifamily development from the area altogether.

The case is assigned to Judge Michael Warren.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319