March 5 2009 12:00 AM

A dispute between Shady Oaks neighborhood residents and a developer is over.


After years of contentious litigation, lawsuits and stop-work orders, a development dispute in the Shady Oaks neighborhood been settled. However, residents — who have long opposed the development — arent confident the agreement will hold.

The dispute centered on a planned residential development in the neighborhood north of Grand River Avenue and just west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard by the non-profit, Giving Tree Farms.

In 2000, Giving Tree, which serves the disabled, proposed to build 23 homes on three acres of land, but neighbors objected, letting their views be known during the Planned Resident Development process. Neighbors said that they wanted any development to be consistent with the characteristics of their neighborhood, including the sidewalk-free streets.

What ensued was a series of proposals presented to the city Planning Board, the City Council and the neighborhood. The problems began, At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries said, when it became clear to Council that what Giving Tree said and what was actually being done were two different things.

After a series of proposed residential designs and run-ins with various contractors, an agreement was reached: Three single-family homes would be built. Rather than develop the land up against four neighbors backyards, between their property lines and Jones Creek, Giving Tree would give the land to neighbors, gifting a bit of property to each homeowner. Most important, the contractor, Bronte Construction, would create a 10-foot pedestrian easement between the existing home at 3309 Westwood Ave. and what would be its first new build. The easement would provide access to what had been essentially a landlocked public park.

Then, “it” hit the fan. In November 2007, as the contractor was breaking ground, the owner of 3309 Westwood Ave. noticed that the 10-foot easement wasnt being built. The easment being built was only six.

The owner, Jonelle Johnston, called the citys Planning and Neighborhood Development Department and was told by a zoning administrator that the contractor was not violating the conditions of the proposed residential development.

Then, in April 2008, neighbors were told that an employee in the zoning office let the contractor nix the 10-foot easement. The neighbors flooded City Hall. The city issued a stop-work order in June. The contractor and developer sued.

What resulted was a long, contentious litigation process. City Attorney Brig Smith brought in East Lansing attorney George Brookover
to handle the citys interest and work with the neighbors. The
neighborhood association, initially pushing to have the encroaching
home torn down, were told "no judge would sign off on that order," said Traci Gorman, co-chairwoman of the Shady Oaks Neighborhood Association.

neighbors agreed to accept three single-family homes. The developer and
contractor would be responsible for building a new pedestrian easement
to the park alongside the northernmost home and a privacy fence for the
homeowner at 3309 Westwood Ave. A settlement was drafted and passed by
the Council.

Jeffries indicated that he and At-large
Councilwoman Carol Wood voted against the resolution because they
simply couldn’t believe that, this time, the developer will uphold its
end of the agreement.

Theyre also more than a little perturbed by the letter Mayor Virg Bernero sent them shortly after the resolution was reached.

the letter, dated Feb. 2, Bernero writes, "After visiting the site
myself, I directed City Attorney Brig Smith to negotiate a resolution
to the encroachment of this structure onto the neighboring home."

Gorman said the letter is simply wrong. First, she charges,
Smith and Bernero had nothing to do with the agreement that was
reached. Gorman said if anyone should get credit for their help in the
matter, it should be Jeffries, Wood and Fourth Ward Councilman Tim

Rod Shangle, a Shady Oaks resident, said
Kaltenbach came up with the idea to give the extra land along Jones
Creek to the four adjacent homeowners as a condition of the new
proposed residential development. He agreed that the letter
ruffled his feathers.

“I was trying to find a word or two of truth," he
said of his initial read of the letter. "Maybe his signature," he

“This was Council’s agreement with the developer that
became problematic,” Bernero says. “I got involved and tried to fix it.
We met with neighbors, staff met with neighbors I feel that we took a
bad situation and made it much better — improved the situation for all
the neighbors there.”