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Published: Wednesday, 6/8/2005

Monroe property owners feud over sharing stairs

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Bernard Beneteau, left, and his son Brian, near the door to the stairs that have caused mounting legal fees, are perplexed by the refusal of the neighboring building owned by David and Eva Sutton to share the stairway. The Suttons say it's simple: 'It's just our property, that's all.' Bernard Beneteau, left, and his son Brian, near the door to the stairs that have caused mounting legal fees, are perplexed by the refusal of the neighboring building owned by David and Eva Sutton to share the stairway. The Suttons say it's simple: 'It's just our property, that's all.'
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

MONROE - A stairway shared for 100 years by neighboring downtown Monroe buildings is the center of a dispute pitting a pair of well-known property owners against one another.

"It's unbelievable. It's like a nightmare," said Bernard "Frenchie" Beneteau, whose building at 27 East Front St. requires use of a stairway belonging to the owner of the building next door to reach the second floor.

David Sutton, owner of the building next door at 23-25 East Front, has a different view: "It's just our property, that's all."

So far, two courts have sided with Mr. Sutton, the most recent a Michigan Court of Appeals decision delivered Friday in Ann Arbor.

The dispute began in 2001 when Mr. Beneteau, owner of Frenchie's Fine Jewelry Coins & Stamps at 15 East Front, bought the building from James and Linda Rostash for $20,000. The Rostashes had begun renovating the building, but did not complete the work.

Mr. Beneteau said he told Mr. Sutton he bought the building, gave him the purchase price, and asked to work together on the stairway issue. He said Mr. Sutton told him no deal. Soon after, the doorway to the second-floor apartment in Mr. Beneteau's building - at the top of the contested stairway - was bricked shut.

Brian Beneteau, Bernard's son and business partner, removed the bricks, and the dispute escalated from there.

"I've been trying from Day 1 to get an agreement worked out," Brian Beneteau said. "We haven't been able to get it done."

Mr. Sutton said the issue began with the Rostashes during the building's renovation.

"[The Beneteaus] inherited their problem," he said.

The Suttons sued the Beneteaus in an attempt to deny the Beneteaus access to the stairway. The Monroe County Circuit Court sided with the Suttons. The Beneteaus appealed. A panel of three judges affirmed the Circuit Court decision.

In its ruling, the court said the Beneteaus had an opportunity during the building's renovation to build their own staircase. Also, the court said that despite a recent survey commissioned by the Suttons revealing that part of the staircase crosses into the Beneteau building and the building's 100-year history demonstrating shared usage, the boundary has been set at the building wall at 27 Front long enough to override the survey results.

Bernard Beneteau, 72, who along with his son has bought and renovated 11 downtown buildings, is perplexed by the controversy, pointing out that numerous downtown building owners share staircases and that he has helped out other owners when asked.

He said he granted access at no charge to a building stairway he owns on Washington Street to Ken Wickenheiser, who had no other access to the third floor of his building.

Mr. Wickenheiser could not be reached for comment, but Benjamin Tallerico, the city's development and planning director, said Mr. Wickenheiser told him the story of Mr. Beneteau's generosity.

"I thought that was a nice gesture on the Beneteaus' part," Mr. Tallerico said. "[But] building owners don't always get along. We hope people can work together and solve issues amicably."

Eva Sutton, Mr. Sutton's wife and owner of Monroe Florist on South Monroe Street, said the issue is not so simple. There are security concerns to consider with the stairway, which leads to a pair of second-floor steel doors on either side - entranceways to each building. The case's legal aspect, however, is basic, according to Mrs. Sutton.

"We're trying to establish ownership," she said.

Bernard Beneteau noted that Mr. Sutton shares a stairway with his other neighbor, the law firm of Czeryba & Godfroy at 19 East Front, with no apparent conflict. The red sidewalk marker denoting boundary lines shows that ownership of the stairway is divided between Mr. Sutton's building and the law firm.

Dennis Czeryba, a partner in the firm, said his company has always maintained the stairway and that he's had no discussions with Mr. Sutton over the matter.

"I've never had a problem with him. I don't think he even has a key," Mr. Czerbya said.

When asked about the staircase between his building and the law firm, Mr. Sutton said it's a different situation.

The Beneteaus, who said they have spent as much money on legal fees as they have to buy the building, will ask the appellate court to reconsider its decision.

The Suttons say they don't know what all the fuss is about.

"We're trying to be good neighbors," Mrs. Sutton said.

"That's bull," Brian Beneteau said.

Contact George Tanber at:

gtanber@theblade.com

or 734-241-3561.



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