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Published: Wednesday, 2/14/2007

Public input big factor in Wal-Mart controversy

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Bedford Township residents mobilized to keep the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter out of their community. And after six years dedicated to the struggle, they won their grassroots battle.

Jon Whitman, the president and owner of the Whitman Ford auto dealership at Sterns Road and Lewis Avenue, lost the lawsuit he filed against the township over the denial of his rezoning requests.

Mr. Whitman had maintained that township officials bowed to public pressure and had not impartially looked at his requests.

But Judge Joseph A. Costello ruled against claims by Mr. Whitman that the township board's actions on the zoning requests were arbitrary and capricious. He said that listening to public opinion is part of a township board's mandate.

"The allegation that the [township] may have 'bowed to the will of a minority' portion of the population, even if true, is not fatal," the judge wrote in his Feb. 2 decision.

"The Michigan Court of Appeals has found it to be appropriate to consider 'public opposition,' " the judge wrote.

"Our system of government is based upon a 'representative democracy,' and one would hope that any legislative body would consider the wishes of their constituents," the judge wrote.

Mr. Whitman said he will not apply to the board for any other rezoning changes on this parcel. And he said he will not appeal Judge Costello's decision.

"I will just continue to keep it up for sale but no one is going to buy it," Mr. Whitman said.

"There hasn't been one person that has wanted it [for residential] in the nine years its been for sale," he said.

Mr. Whitman's main contention is what he says is the township's sudden turn of step in the face of public scrutiny.

"They said they would settle. I was promised a lot of things that didn't come true by the township," he said.

Judge Costello said in an interview he was ready to go to trial a year ago but that both township officials and Mr. Whitman said "they were confident that the settlement would go through."

"But when they took the settlement to the public, and saw the reaction, they turned about-face and voted against it," Judge Costello said.

Township Supervisor Walt Wilburn said that "as a good township official, it was my obligation to go and try and work a settlement."

But Mr. Wilburn said he insisted after the negotiations that Wal-Mart bring its proposal to township residents for their opinion.

"I told them, 'You have to show the general public what you have tried to offer, and let's see what they think,' " he said.

"But it wasn't presentable," Mr. Wilburn said, "and we couldn't approve the settlement."

In October, the township board held a special meeting to hear Wal-Mart's proposal - the outcome of the settlement talks.

The event was televised and held in the Bedford High School's cafeteria to accommodate the more than 300 residents in attendance.

The majority of residents who spoke were against the proposal.

At the board's next official meeting, trustees voted down the settlement that would have allowed the 204,000-square-foot big-box store.

The suit went to trial in January and concluded this month with Judge Costello's decision in favor of the township.

But the judge's verdict does suggest the township did not go through the proper process in correcting its zoning map in 2001.

One of the Whitman suit's main pieces of evidence was that the zoning map had labeled the entire Whitman parcel commercial from 1992 until 2001.

In 2001, Dennis Jenkins, the township's planning and zoning coordinator, discovered the zoning map was incorrect and changed the area in question back to residential.

Mr. Jenkins said he changed the map because rezoning can only be officially changed through a township vote on the underlying ordinances, not the "clerical error" that had occurred in 1992.

Judge Costello's recent ruling orders the township to go through the official process of approving the zoning map with Mr. Jenkins' 2001 correction.

Mr. Jenkins said he does not take Judge Costello's decision as a stab against his handling of the matter.

"The judge is recognizing that there was an error made and he just wants us to go through the process of state law to formally adopt that existing map," Mr. Jenkins said.

Judge Costello, like Mr. Jenkins in 2001, said he gives more weight to the zoning ordinance than the zoning map.

"Obviously when you have an ordinance and a map that are opposite to each other, something has to give," Judge Costello said.

And in his decision he wrote, "The Michigan Legislature and the Michigan Court of Appeals have stated that changes to zoning ordinances may only be accomplished by 'amendments or supplements' to the zoning ordinance and not by an alteration to the map."



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