Salted with Sharks

Putney Begins Moving Workers in to Elberta School Apartments; Zoning Still up in the Air

In Agriculture, Breaking, Gov't Watch, Infrastructure and Planning, On and off the Apron, Politics on April 23, 2013 at 3:40 pm

By Emily Votruba

Three days after the Planning Commission’s inconclusive hearing on Loy Putney’s special permit application to put apartments in the old Bay Valley Inn Property, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development approved and licensed three of the completed units, and workers will begin to move in.

According to Jennifer Holton, media rep for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Loy Putney received a license for three of the units in the “Elberta School Apartments” (former Bay Valley Inn) property on Friday, April 19, with approval to house up to 17 workers. As additional units are ready, he is expected to call Ginger Bardenhagen of MDARD and have them inspected. Holton said the building is deemed acceptable for a total of 50 workers once the units are ready, inspected, and approved. Each unit will be inspected to make sure it conforms to worker housing regulations (viewable here, and below as a pdf).

IPR reported this morning that Putney was beginning to bring workers in to the property, saying he couldn’t wait any longer to begin trimming his peaches. Village resident Iris Jones, of Wayfarer Lodgings, which is located farther south from the Putney property on the opposite side of Scenic Highway, posted on the Alert‘s Facebook page Saturday that she had seen mattresses being moved in to the building. (View/hear the IPR story here, and see a nice photo of some of the new residents.)

At the hearing on April 16, Putney was asked by the Elberta Planning Commission for additional information required by the zoning ordinance for his special use permit application. His application and site plan will be reviewed again at the continued hearing scheduled for May 7. Putney has not yet received approval from the Village Board of Trustees for his apartments.

In an April 10 letter from Bert Gale, Benzie County building official, to Loy Putney and cc’d to Village zoning administrator Ken Bonney, among others, Gale informed Putney that the department would not be processing mechanical and plumbing permits Putney had applied for:”Since the Department of Agriculture has approved this property for a migrant housing camp, no permits are required from this office.” At the time, however, according to Holton, Putney had not yet received his license from the state.

Bert Gale letter to Loy Putney re permits

On April 12, Charles Sessoms, inspector for the Benzie County Building Department, told the Alert he had received verbal confirmation from Ms. Bardenhagen that the Building Department no longer has jurisdiction over the property. Putney had not yet received his license from MDARD, but Bardenhagen had done an initial inspection. According to Sessoms, Bardenhagen told him that Ag was taking over; Sessoms also said he had spoken with a state building official, who “told me to back off.”

“There are housing exemptions for migrant housing. It doesn’t exempt them from the taxes and the zoning,” Sessoms said, “it just makes that building is an ag use and therefore I have no jurisdiction over it.”

Tax assessments are based in part on zoning. In an interview with the Alert last year, Marvin Blackford, the county tax assessor, said agricultural property is zoned at about half the rate of a comparable stucture in another zone. The Putney property is currently zoned Commercial. So the question naturally becomes, does MDARD have the power to override local zoning?

In an email response to this question April 10, Holton wrote simply, “Zoning is not something that the Migrant Labor Housing Statute looks at or requires for a license.”

Loy Putney has always maintained in interviews with this writer that he intends to put migrant workers in the property, and that he intends to follow the state’s regulations for worker housing rather than the county building code. In a tour through the property in February, Mr. Putney pointed out that the state’s requirements are actually stricter in some cases, for example with regard to egress. At that time he was about to begin replacing several picture windows with ones that could be opened.

Marvin Blackford said Tuesday that he’s never encountered a case like this in 28 years of assessing, in which an agricultural use was proposed—and apparently under way— in a commercial district, and in which the local body had not yet approved the use. Blackford said he had spoken with his district supervisor. “He told me I was not allowed to issue anything on that unless it was ag production property, meaning 50% of it was in agricultural production, but he said the state would have the ability to override anything that I did. I asked him if he had ever worked with them before, and he said, ‘Nope.’ I would  think that the Village would have to have copies of [the licenses and other paperwork] to prove that [Putney] was doing what he was told [by the state] to do.” Blackford said he too would need to be provided with that material to back up his eventual assessment determination.

“As it is, I don’t have a clue. Everything I’ve heard tells me [Putney]’s going to use it for migrant workers. If he’s going to do that, having it zoned commercial is a moot point. If he’s already got [approval] for migrant workers, all he’s got to meet is the Ag building codes.

“I don’t understand the thought process. You’ve got two things happening simultaneously, one having nothing to do with the other,” said Blackford, referring to Putney’s application for commercial-zone apartments, and for agricultural labor housing. “Is he trying to make it a split use? Is he going to rent out some of the apartments to other growers?”

The Alert could not reach Putney for comment, but in an interview published in the January 2012 issue of the Alert, Putney said he planned to house up to 40 people “from May through apples,” and he reiterated that number after the Planning Commission hearing. In January Putney also said two families might stay through the winter.

Blackford says the state will ultimately decide how the property is assessed. “We are not going to be able to override what the state allows.”

“I find these kind of things hard to believe,” he added. “It runs counterproductive to everything we’ve done our whole lives as far as zoning and rules and regulations. But there are government agencies that essentially stand independent.”

Diane Jenks, Village board trustee and president pro tempore, said Tuesday that the Village is seeking paperwork from MDARD confirming Putney’s license. At the hearing, the Planning Commission asked Mr. Putney to provide any correspondence he’d had with the department of agriculture regarding his housing, including anything he’d sent to them by way of application and anything he’d received back.

In a court ruling on January 4, Judge James Batzer upheld the Village zoning board of appeals’ denial of a land use permit to Loy Putney for labor housing on the property. He indicated in his ruling that if Putney applied for “apartments” as a special use in that commercial district, he could see no reason why the Village would not approve that use if Putney submitted an acceptable application fulfilling the requirements outlined in the ordinance.

Part 124 of Michigan Public Act 368 of 1978 as amended: Provisions Relating to Agricultural Labor Camps

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