New twist in long-running Holly Twp. property fight

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Holly Township — How much is wooded acreage worth in this section of northern Oakland County?

According to an appraiser tapped by township officials to determine the value of a township-owned property, if it is landlocked — such as a particular 10-acre parcel in question — it’s worthless.

And under an option-to-purchase clause in a consent agreement with a family the township has sparred with for six years, that is exactly what the Smiths intend to pay for it: Zero.

“I can’t believe they put the property up for sale last week,” said Timm Smith, owner of 10 adjacent acres. He lost the 10-acre piece of land to the township in a foreclosure seven years ago after he suffered a broken back and a stroke.

“I just hope the judge sees it our way and the property is signed back over to us,” he said. “They have done everything else to us they can do. I’m on a disability and this has pretty much wiped us out. We were down to raiding the penny jars this week to buy groceries.”

The Detroit News previously reported about the Smith family’s plight and their legal battle with township officials. The Smith family — two adults and their two children — had been living off South Holly Road in a modified woodstove-heated trailer after losing their house and part of their land in the bank foreclosure.

Smith, a carpenter, was unable to return to work. His wife, Maria, worked for a company which moved to Mexico. They fell behind financially and were unable to keep up with mortgage payments.

Township versus Smiths

The township had been trying to evict the Smiths for a while, describing the family’s property as blighted and so unsafe that they planned to remove an underground electrical cable running to a utility pole on the township’s adjacent property.

After the Oakland County Board of Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution asking township officials to maintain electrical power to the trailer, the Smiths were able to keep the power on.

“They made some attempts to buy us out — first $69,000. Then $35,000. Finally about $15,000 two years ago,” Smith said. “They did what they could to make my property worthless and there was no way I was going to sell all we had left.”

Instead, the Smiths countersued, claiming the township coveted their property as part of a future park because it fronts on the Shiawassee River. Compounding matters is that the only route leading onto the property, an unpaved, dirt two-track, goes through a utility company access which the Smiths have permission to use.

Consent agreement

As part of the legal wrangling with the township the Smiths agreed to drop their counterclaim seeking damages and clean up their property. A consent judgment was entered in Oakland Circuit Court on May 25.

The agreement also provided for an option for the Smiths to buy the township property with the price to be determined by “an appraisal of fair market value.”

“The township handpicked an appraiser and this is what she concluded — zero,” said County Commissioner Robert Hoffman, R-Highland Township, who has befriended the Smiths and shown up at several meetings to support their property rights.

When the Smiths went to court last month to ask Oakland Circuit Judge Hala Jarbou to enforce the purchase clause, the township’s attorney, Gregory Need, requested 30 days to research the legality of such a transaction.

Instead, according to the Smiths’ attorney, Casper Connolly, township officials rushed to list the property for sale and now claim they have “received substantial interest for the township property and at least one offer” of $49,900.

“They asked for an adjournment not to review findings as stated in court but to put the property for sale, try and get around the agreement and confuse the case with these new findings,” Connolly said.

“We settled this case in May. They don’t like what they heard in September. And now they are trying to change it in November. One might consider this corruption.”

Land appraised at “$0”

The original 48-page appraisal was done by Louise Braun, a veteran in Oakland County land matters who frequently is called as a legal expert in disputes.

Connolly says the township acquired the property in 2009 after “bullying” a mortgage company with $300 a day in fines for blighted conditions after the foreclosure. Instead, the township agreed it would forgive the fines and take the property for free. The mortgage company turned over the title.

“They got it for nothing and they’ve never paid a cent of taxes on it,” Connolly said.

A copy of Braun’s appraisal obtained by The News determined its market value at “$0.”

“That value is, coincidentally, that which it cost the township to acquire the property,” Braun wrote. “Since the township acquired this property at no cost in 2009, legal action has taken place which would be expected to have a negative impact on the value of the property and the creation of an easement through the wetlands to provide access to Parcel B.

“Adding to this is the failure of the township to maintain or demolish the home, an issue which any potential buyer would face immediately upon purchase, a further negative impact on the value of the property.”

Neither township officials or Need could not be reached for comment Friday. In Need’s court filing seeking to strike the appraisal and judgment he said the Smiths received a mortgage of $137,600 for the township property in 2005 according to court records.

Need said a new appraisal is being done by Brian Kirksey, who found the earlier appraisal of zero value “should not be relied upon and is not credible.”

‘Nothing but a land grab’

The matter is scheduled to be heard before Jarbou on Wednesday. She also told attorneys she plans to issue an opinion on Connolly’s motion next week.

Connolly pointed out Kirksey was not even one of the four appraisers agreed upon by his clients and the township.

“They failed to even provide him (Kirksey) with truthful and accurate information,” Connolly said. “They told him Braun was the Smith’s appraiser when the truth is the township selected her. If they are interested buyers they probably don’t know the property is landlocked.”

The “For Sale” sign was removed from the property earlier this week after the real estate agent obtained copies of recent court filings.

“The Smiths have been harassed and this has been nothing but a land grab,” Hoffman said. “The township wanted to build a riverside park there and the Smiths stood in their way. I think the township should be investigated for abuse of power.

“So they tried to evict them and that didn’t work. Then they threatened to shut off their electrical power in the middle of winter but decided that wasn’t a good idea. Then sued them and that didn’t work.

“They have moved into an apartment because of all the trouble and all they want now is to get their property whole again.”

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