Oct. 5 2017 09:52 AM

Development company sues Meridian Township over Walnut Hills

A Southfield-based realty company’s plan to build almost 400 housing units on a golf course was shut down by the Meridian Township Board earlier this year, and now the company is suing.

Summer Park Realty bought Walnut Hills Country Club during a foreclosure sale with an eye toward redeveloping the 190 acres into single-family housing. But the denial of a rezoning request has the company stuck operating an unprofitable golf course, with the inability to redevelop the property into their desired amount of housing.

The company purchased Walnut Hills from Fifth-Third Bank in early 2016 with the intent to build a higher volume of housing than the property’s current zoning allows.

Summer Park Realty began butting heads with the Meridian Township Planning Commission after presenting their concept plan in October 2016. The company’s goal to build 383 housing units required the vast majority of Walnut Hills to be rezoned.

Why? Because 157 of Walnut Hill’s 190 acres are within the township’s Rural Residential Zone. Only the smaller remaining portion of the property permits the density necessary for Summer Park Realty’s original concept plan.

Density is a keyword for real estate companies. The higher the density, the more likely the company is to make money on a development. For instance, an apartment building is more likely to create cash than a single family home on the same size lot.

Meridian Township residents who live near the Walnut Hills property were vocally opposed to Summer Park Realty’s rezoning request. A Change.org petition pleading for the township to deny the realty company’s application received 250 signatures.

“Summer Park Realty purchased the property knowing exactly how it was zoned,” said LaNita Campbell, president of the neighboring Skyline Hills subdivision. “Our objection was that the area would have way too much traffic. Another objection is there’s a lot of wetland in that area.

When it rains we have a lot of stagnant water and flooded basements.”

That doesn’t sit well with the developer. “I think it was unfair and poor judgment on their part,” said Steve Shafer, a Summer Park Realty partner. “Our original concept plan was within their master plan’s density designations and not even on the high end. We were right there in the middle of it. They have a master plan that guides them and then they do something completely to the contrary.”

But the township’s legal response counters by alleging that decisions such as rezoning applications are made with the consideration that the township’s master plan is undergoing revision. If the board believes a rezoning application contradicts its vision for the township’s future, under the ongoing revisions to the master plan, that application will be denied.

Summer Park Realty filed the lawsuit over the rezoning request denial, alleging that the current zoning density restrictions make it too difficult for the company to profit from the property they’ve purchased.

“The central question of the case will be, can you reasonably develop that property based upon the existing zoning,” said Meridian Township’s attorney, William Fahey. “The township’s position is yes you can.”

Fahey said the issue is not that Summer Park Realty has been denied permission to build housing in general, but that the realty company is not satisfied with the amount they have been permitted.

“They have not pursued, to the extent possible, their ability to develop the property,” Neil Bowlby, president of Meridian Township’s Liaison for Inter- Neighborhood Cooperation, said. “The township has not impaired their ability to develop it at all and they can certainly still develop it to be profitable.”

The township alleges that Summer Park Realty is not pursuing the resources and options available to it. One option is called Planned Unit Development, or PUD. According to the township, if Summer Park Realty pursued the PUD option, Walnut Hill’s two different property zones would have their densities averaged, allowing the developers to build 280 units.

Shafer said Summer Park Realty did pursue the zoning resources at their disposal, but were denied anyway. “They can call it whatever they want, but we did request for conditional rezoning,” said Shafer. “They turned us down.”

Shafer is referring to a proposal from the developers mentioned in the lawsuit that would reduce the initially requested 383 units down to 314. The lawsuit calls the planning commission’s actions against Summer Park Realty “arbitrary and discriminatory.” However, the township’s own legal response denies that Summer Park Realty truly offered such a compromise.

“They asked for a conditional rezoning, but never properly filed for it,” Fahey said. “There’s conditions you have to file and they didn’t. That’s why that never went anywhere.”

Summer Park Realty’s lawsuit seeks no other financial compensation besides rezoning without interference from the planning commission.