‘Blight’ issue referred to attorney

ESCANABA — What is the legal definition of “blighted?” The question led to an hour and a half long discussion at Wednesday’s Escanaba Brownfield Redevelopment Authority meeting. In a 3-2 vote, the authority ultimately decided to seek an attorney’s opinion on the matter of self-blighting raised by the owners of the former Super One building recently

The motion led Vice-Chairperson Elizabeth Keller to declare she would be resigning from the authority.

The special meeting was held to discuss the former Super One property. At the last authority meeting, board members discovered the property owner, Dial Companies, disconnected the sewer at the former Super One building in hopes of having the site declared a brownfield — despite not receiving the blessing of the board when the idea was presented at an earlier meeting.

In December, the authority heard a proposal from Dial Companies. Dial was prepared to permanently disconnect a city utility to make the building fit the definition of “blighted” under Public Act 381, which would allow it to be classified as a brownfield. The designation opens the property up to tax incremental financing (TIF) reimbursements. In the case of brownfield sites, this means the difference between a property’s taxable amount at the time it was designated a brownfield and the value of the property once it has been developed is captured by the authority and returned to the developer to pay for specific eligible expenses that are included in a plan approved by the authority and the city council.

The authority received a memo on March 22 from Myron Berry of Mountain Engineering, which is assisting with the project. It indicating the sewer had been permanently disconnected. The board was hesitant to approve the designation and tabled it because some members were not sure if the self-created blight would violate the law or at the very least be against the spirit of it and set an unwanted precedent.

The approved motion at Wednesday’s meeting seeks the qualified opinion of an attorney or the Michigan attorney general to define whether or not self-blighted properties qualify under Public Act 381 or if a capping of a sewer qualifies under the blighted definition under Public Act 381.

There was discussion between authority members and City Manager Patrick Jordan on the ambiguity of Public Act 381, as it does not include specific language regarding if property owners can or cannot self-blight to qualify.

“There was no specific statement that if the property owner caused the disconnection of the utilities, caused the blighting, if that was okay. There was nothing against it,” said Keller based on her research on the law.

Some felt because the law didn’t specifically include anything on self-blighting that it should be allowed for the former Super One building but a policy should be put in place so it doesn’t happen again. Other members felt it would be better for a lawyer to give an opinion on the matter before a precedent is made in Escanaba.

There were also concerns raised with the specific blighted definition “self-blighting” would fall under. Under the act, a property would be deemed blighted if it “has had the utilities, plumbing, heating, or sewerage permanently disconnected, destroyed, removed, or rendered ineffective so that the property is unfit for its intended use.”

Board member Joseph Kaplan said he doesn’t believe capping off the sewer qualifies as blighted because it isn’t permanent. He said it wouldn’t take much to uncap the sewer.

Board member Matthew Sviland said he believes the former Super One building is technically blighted with the capping off the sewer. However he was in favor of getting an opinion from a lawyer on the self-blighting issue.

Board members Sviland and Kaplan and Chairperson Randy Godlewski voted in favor of the motion to seek legal counsel, while Keller and board member Monte Morrison voted against. With the 3-2 vote, the motion was approved.

No decisions or actions will be made involving self-blighted properties seeking brownfield until the legal opinion is acquired — putting the former Super One’s claim for the designation on hold.

Keller said she was resigning from the board after the motion was approved.

“Yes, I’d like to be removed from this board please. I will submit an official letter of resignation. I have spent many, many hours working on this and … I’m tired,” she said.