Blight Or Government Overreach?
Zoning for historic preservation a source of conflict for Northville building owner
When Ronald Bodnar bought a 19th-century building in Northville 40 years ago, he was excited about the history that came with it.
The structure at 342 East Main Street was built in 1870. Bodnar said Henry Ford used it as a party house and records indicated that Amelia Earhart spent the night there. Even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor once visited for an event.
“It was registered as a historic home when I bought it, but that was before ‘historic’ became a monster,” Bodnar said.
“I’ll tell you what I’ve learned,” he continued. “I bought this home 40 years ago. ... It’s got a lot of history to it ... but when it comes down to it, when you buy a home with a ‘historic’ designation you actually lose.”
“I don’t really own my house anymore,” Bodnar said. “I’m just the maintenance guy.”
He described the experience of dealing with the city of Northville Historic District Commission as a horror story that has left him with more than $20,000 in fines for minor zoning infractions.
“I’ve been in court literally constantly for various zoning issues over the past three years. The poor judge is getting tired of seeing me,” he said.
The city of Northville tells a different story. Officials say their problem with Bodnar is that his property has blight issues. They say the building was vacant as of 2018, is designated as commercial property, and Bodnar runs a printing business out of it.
“Mr. Bodnar’s only fines from the City involve blight violations. These are not related to the Historic District,” said Patrick Sullivan, the Northville city manager. “On several occasions, he has been cited for blight and given months to clean it up. After several months, the City goes to District Court. Usually, a small fine is levied, the City is authorized to go in with a loader and clean up the site and the bill for labor and dumpsters is assessed to Mr. Bodnar. If it isn’t paid, it goes on the tax bill.”
Sullivan said that in 2018, Bodnar was cited by the Historic District Commission for “Demolition by Neglect.” The city has the ability to get a court order and make the repairs over Bodnar’s objections.
“Demolition by neglect means neglect in maintaining, repairing or securing a resource that results in deterioration of an external feature of the resource or the loss of structural integrity of the resource,” Sullivan said in an email. “Some of the architectural details along the roofline are deteriorating and the soffits have holes which racoons are going in and out of. Mr. Bodnar has taken no action to plug the holes or repair the damage. The City went to Court earlier this year and obtained an order to do the work in order to prevent further deterioration and charge it to Mr. Bodnar. As of yet, we have not hired a contractor and performed the repairs and Mr. Bodnar has not been charged anything for the demolition by neglect issue. There is currently so much debris around the building that a contractor could not get to the building to repair it. If Mr. Bodnar were to have the repairs done, he could avoid any charges from the City for this work.”
Sullivan continued: “The City’s efforts have been to preserve a historic structure and clean up a blighted property on Main Street. We have no desire to buy Mr. Bodnar’s house, we are just trying to get it cleaned up.”
Bodnar said he was aware that his roof needs repairs.
“I was already looking at new roofs at the same time [the historic commission] told me to replace mine,” he said. “But they took me to federal court and got the judge to agree that I had to put new siding on the building, put in new windows, and put on a new roof.”
Bodnar, a retired newspaperman, said there’s no way he can afford to do everything demanded of him, especially all at once.
“Their plan is to acquire my house because I won’t be able to afford the renovations they’re requiring,” he said.
Bodnar said he has spoken to other people who own property designated “historic” and have had similar experiences. “It’s like it has to impact people before they understand how bad this is,” he said.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.