Residents living in the Liberty Square complex of townhouses will see a sticker appear on their homes Tuesday, when the Ypsilanti Township Building Department places...read more
The new judge assigned to the city's suit against the owners of the Thompson Block has ordered both parties to attempt to negotiate an agreement.
Judge Donald Shelton issued an order in court today that requires representatives from both the city of Ypsilanti and Historic Equities LLC to participate in facilitation until June 18.
Karl Barr, assistant city attorney for Ypsilanti, said facilitation is a more structured form of mediation, where the third party—or facilitator—has court authority to direct the proceedings with the court's authority.
Shelton appointed retired Judge John Collins to serve as facilitator to the dispute and granted him authority to require the participation of all individuals and parties involved in the matter, including members of City Council. Shelton said both parties in the case would share the $250-per-hour cost of the proceedings equally.
If the matter is not resolved, Shelton scheduled another court date for June 23. He said the 30-day time frame is the shortest facilitation he has ordered.
The matter stems from a complaint by the city against the owners of the 149-year-old former Civil War barracks in Depot Town. Since a fire devastated the building in Sept. 2009, wooden scaffolding has been supporting the brick façade, which extends into the city's adjacent sidewalks and roadways.
City Manager Ed Koryzno granted a traffic control order for the supports, but City Council twice rejected a third extension for the order. After the the second rejection in April, the city took the directive to file suit against the building's owners, citing traffic and fire code violations.
A hearing was scheduled earlier this month in front of Judge David Swartz to require the building's owner to show cause as to why the scaffolding should not be removed. However, the defendant's attorney filed to have the case transferred to Shelton, due to his experience in past litigation surrounding the Thompson Block. Swartz granted the motion before making a ruling on the matter.
During the hearing today, Shelton said he understood the reasons behind the transfer.
“I do come to this case with some significant familiarity of the history,” Shelton said before issuing his order.
Before the hearing began, Shelton put the court into recess and called both attorneys to his chambers. Barr said the idea for facilitation came from Shelton, as well as appointing Collins as the facilitator.
After the hearing, Barr said the order was “very wise,” as both sides can become entrenched in a case and come at the dispute with an “all or nothing” frame of mind.
He said the order could “get both parties to work out a structured compromise.”
Barr said the conversations held during the negotiations will be privileged and would be protected from being used in open court. He said the time-line was reasonable, but he would have preferred less than the 30 days ordered.
Stewart Beal, managing member of Historic Equities, said, “I could not have imagined a better outcome for the Thompson Block,” in an e-mail sent to the Citizen after the hearing.
“The facilitation order by Judge Shelton today will allow for the parties in the case to negotiate a reasonable agreement,” Beal said in his e-mail. “I only wish that City Council would have voted for the original agreement because under that plan most of the work would be done by now.”
The city's final decision to reject the traffic control order extension came after an agreement reached between Beal and Koryzno. The agreement would have had all exterior supports removed by October. However, the building would have only been restored to its original condition before the fire.
Beal filed a counter-suit against the city asking the judge to require the city to approve the building and right-of-way permits he has been filing since March. Beal said it is unfair for the city to take him court to perform work he can't perform because the city won't approve his permit applications.
However, Barr said the building permits were only to remove the scaffolding and perform masonary work. He said the city would prefer Beal to restore the Thompson Block to the point where it can hold a certificate of occupancy, or at lease have the “envelop buttoned up” by rebuilding the roof and replacing the doors and windows to make the building safe and secure.
He said the work proposed in the building permits Beal has applied for would still leave the building as a dangerous nuisance.
Beal has maintained he can't perform the work without a bank loan, which he can't secure without tenants to occupy the space. When he announced his counter-suit, Beal said he has tenants lined up for the entire first floor and a portion of the basement and upper levels but couldn't get them to sign a lease with the building involved in litigation.
Barr said the counter-suit's request, called a writ of mandamus, is “wholly inappropriate.” He said it is usually used in a situation where the authority being ordered by the court has no discretion in the action. He used applying for a driver's license after meeting all the requirements or registering as a voter.