Livonia residents feel ‘neglected’over ongoing dispute

Leah Borst
Special to The Detroit News

Lights from a three-story parking garage illuminate Mike Horton’s backyard and stream through his kitchen window.

The Livonia resident had expected to see a paved parking lot roughly 100 feet from his property line. Instead, he views a looming concrete structure through a handful of young evergreen trees.

“It’s terrible what has happened throughout the years and the way (the neighbors) were treated,” said Horton’s attorney, Eric Stempien. “It’s about what is right and wrong and the neighbors were wronged.”

A drawn-out battle between McLaren Performance Technologies and nearby homeowners is drawing to a close after protracted court battles and zoning disputes with Livonia City Council.

But it’s the feeling of betrayal, residents say, that will have a lasting impact.

“We ask questions and we never get answers,” said Melissa Wegener, who has lived across the street from Horton for 25 years. “It’s disheartening to know the city doesn’t have the back of their residents and haven’t tried to work out what is best for both parties.

“(The neighbors) have worked hard getting signatures in support of stopping this project, calling our council members and trying to meet with McLaren to come to a mutual plan that would help us all make it a project we could live with. But, no cooperation from these parties ever happened.”

Scott Maxwell, director of operations at McLaren, said, on the contrary, company officials had repeatedly met with neighbors.

“The neighbors were a part of the process and able to share their concerns,” he said. “We’ve met with them several times to try and figure things out.”

What started out in 2010 as changes to the facility on 8 Mile to accommodate a handful of new workers mushroomed four years later into a major expansion to consolidate Metro area workers in one building and also to build the garage for them to use. The new workers were scheduled to move in this week.

“The original intent was to make some minor modifications to the building to bring about 30 people over from our Southfield office,” Maxwell said.

Project never started

McLaren and its parent company, Linamar, went to the city of Livonia to ask for a zoning variance from residential to parking near the building it has occupied since 1969.

The original equipment manufacturer that provides engineering, testing and prototyping also approached nearby residents about its development plans for a paved surface lot.

Neighbors within 100 feet of the property, including Horton, objected and filed a protest.

The neighbors agreed to withdraw their protest once McLaren and Livonia entered into a conditional rezoning of the land, which required McLaren to start the surface lot project within a year.

The project was never started.

“I feel particularly responsible for agreeing to the surface lot,” said Horton, who has lived in his house since 1985. “(McLaren) manipulated us, so they could get another outcome than what they promised they were going to do. We were deliberately misled.”

“I know the neighbors think we were being ultra-smart and were just waiting, but the company underwent changes and decided to take another look at the development,” Maxwell said. “It was a desire of the company to have everyone in one building.”

Maxwell said the parking structure was part of a building expansion package presented to the City Council. The new goal was for McLaren to have all of its 190 employees — some also worked in a Southfield office — into one building.

“We had to understand how big the building is and how many parking spaces were needed,” Maxwell said. “We had to meet the criteria for both now and in the future.”

Threats to move

Maxwell said McLaren had planned to expand for the past 15 years and had looked at properties in Livonia and surrounding areas. The company had already invested millions in machinery and building renovations by 2014, according to Maxwell.

“To move all of our (specialized) equipment, it would cost millions of dollars,” he said. “We have emissions and we have to be controlled by the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality), so the state would probably like to limit where we go.”

In 2014, Livonia’s mayor invited the area’s residents to an informational meeting to discuss changes McLaren proposed to the city ordinance, which included turning the surface lot into a parking structure. The residents, once again, presented City Council with a petition of protest.

“It was clear that the city and McLaren were having discussions without including us and knowing they were going to drop this bomb,” Horton said. “Ralph (Martin, a neighbor) and I would stand in the yard and say, ‘I wonder why they stopped working on this.’ Well, they didn’t stop. They were just getting bigger plans.”

Livonia City Attorney Don Knapp determined the protest was irrelevant since the property had already been rezoned to parking in 2010. McLaren said the rezoning agreement had never expired and the City Council agreed.

Stempien claims that according to the state Legislature, a local unit of government can establish a time period during which the conditions apply and if not fulfilled the land will revert to its former zoning classification.

Countered Knapp: “There is nothing in the zoning agreement that explicitly stated that if construction did not start within a year than the property reverts to residential.”

Not ‘trying to fool’ neighbors

Maxwell said Linamar invested roughly $20 million into the expansion project, which included development of the parking structure and renovations to the building.

“There was nothing underhanded and we weren’t trying to fool the neighbors,” he said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have sat here for four years. There was just a much larger need in 2014.”

Last summer, Horton filed a lawsuit against McLaren, Linamar and the city alleging the zoning had reverted back to residential and the lot was not compatible for the garage. Wayne Circuit Judge Susan Hubbard agreed and ruled no parking structures were allowed.

McLaren immediately appealed the judge’s ruling since the company was halfway through construction of the parking structure. Maxwell said design, using wire guides to connect pieces of the structure, made it unsafe to leave unfinished, according to the project engineers.

A Livonia ordinance states that no structures or buildings are allowed on properties zoned for parking, according to Stempien. Meaning, the structure should not have been built in the first place.

Still, Hubbard stated Horton had no standing to enforce the contract between McLaren and the city.

Horton has appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Legal fight continues

In February, the City Council approved the rezoning of the lot from parking to residential — permanently.

“My position is that none of the 2014 process matters, because in 2010 it explicitly stated that McLaren said they wouldn’t do any of what they have done,” Horton said. “They should have never been building the structure to begin with.”

Wegener said McLaren has made several promises to the neighbors that it hasn’t kept.

“McLaren said they would run the electrical wires underground, but now I stare at electrical poles and a big parking structure out my window,” she said. “There are trucks coming in early and workers working late. Now, they are talking about widening the roads for the commercial trucks.”

Maxwell said the construction noise will disappear once the project is complete by May 1.

Martin, whose property borders McLaren’s retention pond, has lived in the neighborhood for 53 years.

“My biggest concern is the loss of property values,” he said. “(McLaren) deceived the residents and didn’t follow the zoning laws. They depleted our property values.”

Martin, 78, remembers moving to the neighborhood when he was 25 years old.

“When I moved here, it was all urban farm. It was a nice country spot,” Martin said. “That is all changed and we can’t do anything about it.”

Leah Borst is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.