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Published: Wednesday, 3/2/2005

Bedford Township presses lawyers for settlement on dealer's suit

TEMPERANCE - Bedford Township Board members last night instructed the township's legal team to continue to negotiate with Whitman Ford in order to settle the lawsuit the dealership filed last year in a zoning dispute.

Without mentioning the case or the Whitmans by name, the board last night eliminated a legal hurdle for the Whitmans while calling for negotiations toward a settlement. Board members confirmed after the meeting that they were talking about the Whitman situation.

"If we can negotiate this and keep this out of court, that would be my own [preference]. Nobody wins in court except the attorneys," township Trustee Dennis Steinman said.

Jon Whitman, owner of Whitman Ford, has wanted to change the zoning of about 30 acres around his Lewis Avenue dealership to allow for commercial development.

At one point, Mr. Whitman said Wal-Mart planned to build a 225,000 square-foot superstore on the site.

But after the township board denied two of his rezoning requests, Mr. Whitman's company filed a lawsuit in September in Monroe County Circuit Court. The dealership wants the court to recognize that the entire property is zoned C-3 commercial, instead of being broken up to include a large residential component. C-3 is the township's most liberal commercial zoning district, and allows the greatest intensity of commercial uses.

The suit also seeks damages in excess of $25,000 from the township for what it calls the township board's "arbitrary and capricious" failure to approve two previous rezoning requests.

The rezoning requests were rejected by the township board, whose members said that they wanted the dealership to be able to expand, but the rezoning would also allow for construction of a large box store such as Wal-Mart. A vocal group of neighbors had opposed construction of a Wal-Mart on the site.

Since Mr. Whitman's rezoning requests were rejected, legislators in Michigan have passed a new law that for the first-time allows for "contract" zoning, where rezoning of land can be made conditional on the developer's plans and promises.

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