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HARRISON – Hayes Township has faced serious blight issues for years, and the battle to eliminate them is ongoing. As Hayes Township Supervisor Terry Acton has said multiple times, this problem has taken more than 60 years to reach its current state, and there is no quick fix.
The township took a serious stance in 2015 when it began a plan for condemning then demolishing the worst of these properties. The first was an abandoned and rotting mobile home on East Cranberry Lake Road, which was razed in July 2015. The second structure to be demolished was taken down in September 2016. It was a summer cottage on Stockwell Road near Cranberry Lake which had been neglected for many years – to the point a tree was actually growing up through the heart of the building, a building rotting into the earth and being consumed by vegetation. As it turned out, the original owner was deceased; the heir had moved to Spain, then returned to the U.S. and passed away; leaving the township to sleuth out the current heir in order to finally complete the whole process. A third structure was taken down in October 2016 – a stench-emitting property on Woods Road in Ash Acres which was purchased at foreclosure by a neighbor with the intent of demolishing it. Financing for that demolition was aided by grant funds secured by the Clare County Community Services Director.
Of course, getting from Point A to Point Z isn’t all that simple. It requires multiple steps, and the goal isn’t necessarily setting out to tear down any structure that is deemed an eyesore. Blight actually means dealing with property owners and residents who are not meeting basic standards of structural stability and proper sanitation. Neighbors may find a yard to be messy and unpleasant to look at, but in order for a property to be deemed blighted legally, it must pose a real threat to health and safety.
After a property owner is ticketed for a blight infraction, there must be a court appearance where the judge weighs the evidence presented by both parties. Most often the judge will give the defendant a time frame within which to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, even if there is partial or complete property cleanup, the site often quickly reverts to its former blighted state and the whole process starts over again. That process can take a great deal of time, and each renewed pursuit starts the “cost-clock” ticking all over again – including cost to the township. Yet the township, with the help of its former zoning enforcement officer, continued as best it could to pursue remedies for protecting residents.
To put further teeth into the effort, the township embraced a strongly worded blight ordinance – one of three ordinances: blight, grass and noise, which it eventually suspended due to the unfunded cost for prosecution. Since that suspension, complaints have continued to roll in, along with suggestions from residents and offers to help solve the problem. However, those offers of monetary contribution were deemed undoable because there is no governmental mechanism in place either for receiving funds or for determining where/how they would be allocated for use. The supervisor has continued to defend the township’s suspension of ordinances as necessary, because it is pointless to have an ordinance that is unenforceable. He maintained that the ordinances are unenforceable because there is no revenue stream to pay for that cost of enforcement.
At its November 2019 meeting, the Hayes Township Board approved a motion to remit a corrected nuisance millage interest survey along with the winter tax bills. The first survey issued with the township’s summer tax bills contained an error which was confusing, thus it was thought the corrected version would bring clarity. The survey cites a proposed millage of four-tenths of a mill [a multiplier of 0.0004] which would equal $4 per $10,000 of taxable value.
Acton said the surveys are coming back at about 50:50 pro/con.
“We sent out a survey to all the property owners for their opinion of four-tenths of one mill to fund a blight department,” he said. “A blight department would consist of a professional-grade officer, a vehicle, necessary office expenses, necessary fringes, and a pot of money for the legal issues that come up – because they will. We’ll be involved with legal issues right with the first ticket.”
Acton said he is continually asked ‘Why isn’t that already in my taxes?’ and replies that the answer is incredibly simple.
“Townships can only tax at seven-tenths of one mill,” he said. “That means 95% of everything that comes into our office goes right back out to other agencies. We have a very small amount of money to run our township on; you just can’t fund these things out of the general fund. You can’t do it.”
Acton said that since coming into office, he has learned it is easy to come up with good ideas.
“They’re all good ideas,” he said. “But if you don’t have a way to fund them – don’t bother.”
When March 1 rolls around and all the tax bills and surveys have been returned, Acton said the plan is to sort out the non-resident responses.
“Hayes Township has a lot of non-residents who own property here,” he said. “We’re a resort community, that’s what we are. But as painful as it is, and people from downstate don’t like hearing this, but if you don’t live here you don’t really deserve to have a say in quality of life issues here. You just don’t.”
Acton clarified by saying the whole point of homesteading is that it’s about where a person lives, not what they own.
“You can own several houses, but you can only live in one home,” he said, adding that the proportion of developed properties [with dwellings] vs. vacant properties in the township is “very roughly” 70% and 30%, respectively.
Acton also noted there are several potential millages coming at voters this year, which could spur what he called a “revolt by the public” resulting in turning down everything. He said that is a real concern as the township’s fire millage is up for renewal this year.
He also cited some statewide statistics which place Clare County as being one of the state’s poorest counties, adding that Hayes Township is always in the bottom 50 for income out of 1,500 municipalities [including villages, cities and townships].
“We are in the low 50 every year,” Acton said. “Last year we were around 14 and this year we went up a little bit; I think we were 18 or 20”
He added that, while the non-residents’ income is not counted in those figures, they do bring necessary dollars into the community.
“It’s all that keeps us alive,” Acton said. “I’ve heard people around here complain about the downstaters – that’s a popular thing to do. But, take away the downstaters and Harrison dies. That day, that week, it’s over. We are a tourist community, and without our golf courses, our lakes and our trails, four-wheel areas – there’s nothing. We’re out of here.”
It was also noted that while the township needs taxpayer dollars, there is a substantial number of people there who are at the low end of the economic scale, which further complicates things.
“Some people are poor that have worked hard their whole lives but didn’t make very good money,” Acton said. “Some are poor because they were physically injured. And some are poor because they made bad life choices. It’s really complicated. But at the end of the day, when you’re asking people for money, it’s not as easy as people think it is. I lay awake at night thinking about this.”
Beginning this spring, after current Zoning Enforcement Assistant Ken Hoyt attains full certification, there are two more abandoned houses the township has its sights set on for demolition. Acton was quick to make plain that these are not habitable dwellings. One is an abandoned cottage with a collapsed roof on Lake Point Drive. The other is on Oak Road which a tree collapsed on years ago; inspection of the resulting water damage has deemed it unsalvageable.
Acton said he is most interested in a simple two-page ordinance that addresses violations that represent “the worst of the worst” situations.
“Something that when it’s pulling your property value down, we can come in and do something,” he said. “That’s all I want to accomplish, nothing more.”