Holly to appeal court order to turn over land to family

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Holly Township — Holly is far from jolly these days as a couple continues a very public legal fight with township officials over disputed land.

It’s a civil matter that has gotten so personal at times that the township contacted police saying officials had security concerns about Timm Smith, an unemployed, disabled carpenter who is trying to reclaim 10 acres of land that he lost, along with his house, in a 2009 mortgage foreclosure.

Smith, for his part, refers to local officials as “liars and thieves,” who needed his land to build a riverside park.

Welcome to bucolic Holly Township, where more than 11,000 residents enjoy living “Up North in Oakland County,” according to the township’s motto.

“There is no end to the animosity,” Timm Smith said. “They want to use the law to keep the property.”

Smith said he offered the township $20,000 for the property earlier this year but it was declined.

“They wanted an appraisal done and they even picked the appraiser,” he said. “Now they don’t like what they hear.

“They want to ignore the order of the court on what they must do — give us the deed to property.”

A veteran, respected appraiser, Louise Braun, said the land was worthless and valued it at zero dollars because the parcel was landlocked — unreachable by public road.

The Smiths wanted to reclaim the property at that no-cost evaluation and the township said no. The Smiths went back to court seeking enforcement of the consent agreement and an Oakland Circuit judge ruled the township was to convey the title back to the Smiths.

After a closed township board session last week, four council members voted unanimously to appeal the judge’s decision.

“Under law you have 21 days to appeal and that is what we are doing,” said Gregory Need, the township’s attorney. “The board also wants to investigate legal remedies for the appraisal. We have had another appraiser that suggested it should be disregarded and the property has considerable worth.”

After it was listed for sale by the township following the appraisal, one potential buyer has reportedly offered $50,000.

The board also voted to seek legal remedies against Braun and to step up code enforcement on the Smith’s property.

“As far as code enforcement — that is the duty of the township and as part of the consent agreement, the Smiths agreed to clean up the property,” Need said.

The Smiths, who have sank their life savings into legal costs, said it is another example of the lengths to which the township is determined to go to get what it wants.

“This should stop, we should be healing as a community but this has become a personal vendetta,” Maria Smith told the board at the meeting as someone in the audience shouted “do the right thing!”

The township had previously tried to have the Smiths evicted for blight and other code violations after it took over the foreclosed 10 acres.

The couple and their two children then moved into a modified woodstove-heated trailer on an adjacent parcel of land they still own. Timm Smith broke his back, suffered a stroke and could no longer work.

Since then, the township sued, the Smiths countersued, and it appeared matters had finally been resolved with a consent agreement between sides in May, which permitted an appraisal on the foreclosed acreage and gave the Smiths first right of purchase.

Police files discredit Smiths

Oakland County Commissioner Robert Hoffman, R-Highland Township, said the conflict has gone so far that township officials even have tried to discredit Timm Smith with local law enforcement officers.

Hoffman used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Michigan State Police files on the Smiths and found township Supervisor Dale Smith (no relation) and others had quietly slipped a package of emails and complaints about Smith to a trooper in December 2014 during a visit on the property after Smith blocked a driveway into the parcel with a truck.

The township-created package branded Smith as a potentially violent person who associated with criminals and was running a marijuana operation on his property.

Smith denies the allegations and has never been charged or convicted of any crimes. He insists he never grew or sold marijuana or associated with criminals.

“They (township) have used their power and taxpayer money to achieve their ends,” Hoffman said. “I think it is despicable.”

In a series of September 2010 emails from Treasurer Mark Freeman to Holly Village Police Chief Rollie Gackstetter, concerns were raised about disorderly conduct at public meetings and references to Timm Smith, who is described as visiting township offices with “snippy” behavior and repeated requests for information and public record “but did not cause any problems.”

Accompanying the reports are copies of clippings of confrontation between officials and citizens elsewhere in the nation that turned violent, including a January 2011 incident in which Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, and others were seriously injured by a gunman. The article noted how the shooter was “preoccupied with theories on massive government fraud.”

Also included was an internal October 2009 township report by code enforcement officer Roger Welsh, on how a house near the Smith property — supposedly taken in a drug seizure — had been identified as the residence of a convicted criminal who associated with a man who was involved in a shootout with a Florida trooper in 2010. It also indicated a belief that there was a drug dealing connection between those same people and Smith.

“I knew a man living in the house was abusing the woman who lived there, but we were all afraid of him and never had anything to do with him,” Smith said. “And the house wasn’t taken in a drug seizure. She had put it up to make bond for him and lost it.”

The police file, shared with The Detroit News, includes photographs of hand-built structures on Smith’s property labeled as locations of “grow room operation” and “drying building.”

Maria Smith said the information was accurate, concerning the cultivation of legal herbal plants and vegetables.

“I am a master gardener and grew various herbs for cooking, medical and legal purposes — rosemary, thyme, other things — but we never grew marijuana,” Maria Smith said. “We never grew it and never sold it.”

Nepotism accusations

At a recent township meeting, Hoffman accused the board of spending between $150,000 to $200,000 on legal fees and employees’ time in the legal battle.

Township Clerk Karin Winchester, one of the board members, denied the estimate but said Friday she had not tabulated billings. She said some legal fees were paid by the township’s insurance carrier.

Smith and his wife also took turns in a public comment segment to question officials’ recent creation of a job for Welsh as “projects coordinator,” and the promotion of Welsh’s assistant — Winchester’s daughter — to Welsh’s old job.

Winchester confirmed Friday the jobs were filled “in-house.”

“If you have employees who are doing a good job and are qualified, you want to keep them,” Winchester said. “That’s good business. If they aren’t qualified, of course, you should look beyond.”

She said the jobs are “very part-time,” without benefits, and only paid hourly — “based on need.”

“He has been with the township for 10 years and is paid $26.40 and hour,” Winchester said. “My daughter, who has been trained by him and has seven years experience, is $20.50 an hour.”

The Smiths challenged the jobs at the meeting and said they should have been posted so others could apply for the work. Outgoing township trustee Mark Cornwell agreed, saying during the meeting that posting jobs for employment rather than filling them is a “good business practice.”

Cornwell, who leaves office this month, did not attend the closed session or vote on the three motions Wednesday.