FAIRPLAIN TOWNSHIP — Tim and Jessica Vanconant lost their house in a fire this summer.
The mobile home at 1762 W. Boyer Road went up in flames July 16 (the fourth fire in six months on Boyer Road between Carlsen and Brown roads).
The question of where the Vanconants should live after the fire has become quite the debate in Fairplain Township, with the Mid-Michigan District Health Department, the Montcalm County Building Department and, most recently, the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners getting involved.
“It’s a long story,” sighed Fairplain Township Supervisor Tom Sova.
Ordinance against singlewides
After the fire, the Vanconants began staying in a camper on the property. However, last May, the township board approved a building ordinance requiring the minimum flooring area of a single family residence to be 780 feet with a width of 18 feet. Lot sizes and setbacks remain the same as before, however, a single family residence more than 10 years old cannot be moved onto a lot within the township.
According to Sova, this ordinance was created in response to people bringing cheap, eyesore singlewides into the township, some of the singlewides almost 40 years old. He says it’s a good ordinance and something township officials had to create.
“They want to put a 1980, 14-by-70 singlewide on the property,” said Sova of the Vanconants. “The property’s so blighted they don’t have room to bring it on the property. They’re living in a camper. They’re in violation. You can’t live in a camper for a dwelling in our township.”
Blight was an problem at the property well before July’s fire.
The property was cited by the Mid-Michigan District Health Department in Stanton for a disconnected sewer and garbage on the property in early 2013, according to Sova.
Montcalm County Building Department Director Scott Minard was in the process of condemning the property last winter, but he agreed to give the Vanconants another chance after talking with Bob Cusack, a real estate broker from Lake Odessa.
Cusack said he has owned 10 acres in the Boyer Road area for more than 20 years. He sold two of his acres to Tony Rushford and Gwen Larsen. He said after Gwen Larsen died, her daughter Tina Larsen moved into the home for a time and Rushford relocated to Florida.
Cusack said Tina and her boyfriend eventually took the furnace from the home and left. He said he is not able to locate either one of them or Rushford. In the meantime, the Vanconants moved into the home until the fire destroyed it.
Cusack said Fairplain Township’s ordinance banning singlewide dwellings is “no good, it’s not enforceable.”
“If you are not a charter township and you do not have zoning and the county does not have zoning, you can not ban singlewide trailers,” he said.
Asking the county for help
At their Aug. 5 meeting, the Fairplain Township Board voted to have the township attorney send a letter to the Vanconant family, notifying them that they have 30 days to clean the property. If the family does not comply, the township can get a court order to have the property cleaned up.
However, Sova told The Daily News he has not yet asked the township attorney to act. He said he is hoping the Vanconants will resolve the blight issues before the township is forced to take legal action.
Cusack attended the Aug. 26 Montcalm County Board of Commissioners meeting, where he held up a copy of the Aug. 6 Daily News, which contained a story detailing the Aug. 5 Fairplain Township Board meeting.
“Right here in bold print is says Fairplain Township gets attorney involved,” Cusack declared to commissioners. “Fairplain Township never gets their attorney involved, they’re very tight with their money. I don’t understand how Fairplain Township can get away with this. I think the county Board of Commissioners here should order the building department to issue a permit (so the family can live on the property).”
Cusack told commissioners the property has been “way over assessed” in the 20+ years he’s owned it. According to Sova, Cusack sold the property on a land contract for $30,000 and the property is currently being assessed $15,000 by the township.
Cusack said he paid $85 to the Building Department for a electricity and water pump permit. He said the Vanconants need electricity to cut up the old house frame and water to give to their dogs. Cusack said his check was returned two days later saying a permit would not be issued until the township gave its approval.
“I just think that this couple’s been treated very bad,” Cusack told commissioners. “I know this isn’t really your problem, but in a way it is because you control the county. See what you can do to convince Fairplain Township that your building department has the power over them and certainly has the right to issue us a building permit and an electrical permit.”
Jessica Vanconant also addressed commissioners at the Aug. 26 meeting.
“We lost everything,” she said. “Right now we’re homeless. We’re staying in our camper. I think Fairplain Township is being really rude. I think it’s just totally wrong of them not letting us stay there. They basically kicked us off our own property. They don’t want us to stay there because the building department told us we did not have the means for a sewer. I had a portajohn come out there. We wouldn’t get a light pole because the building department would not let us have one. We were in the process of buying that property from Mr. Cusack. Now they won’t let us stay there. Since we’ve had that fire, the township’s given us a hard time about it. We’re staying in our camper wherever we can park it. So we’re homeless.”
Commissioners didn’t take any action after hearing from Cusack and Vanconant.
Resolving blight issues
The issue of the Boyer Road property came up again at Monday’s Montcalm County Economic Development & Physical Resources Committee meeting when Minard was giving his quarterly building report to commissioners.
Commissioner Tom Lindeman of Greenville asked Minard why commissioners weren’t told about the Boyer Road blight problem until recently.
“I didn’t think it was an issue,” Minard replied. “I deal with stuff like that almost every day.”
Commissioner John Johansen of Montcalm Township asked whether Minard receives more property blight complaints from individuals or townships. Minard said most complaints come from individuals, although more townships are now getting involved.
Johansen said sometimes township boards are left unclear about the status of a blight property after the building department and health department do as much as they are allowed to do.
“I think there’s an opportunity to have a better closure process,” Johansen said to Minard. “I would encourage when we get to that point, that you go back and you say, ‘Mr. Township, here’s what I have done and if you seek any further action then it’s your responsibility.’ Otherwise the public is hearing, ‘well, I don’t know what they’re doing,’ and it looks like we don’t know what we’re doing.”
Minard said blight properties aren’t typically a major problem as the majority of them are rental issues and the landlord often fixes the problem within a week or two.
“This normally wouldn’t be an issue except for Mr. Cusack being involved,” Minard told commissioners.
Searching for a solution
The township board had its most recent meeting Monday night, during which the issue was brought up again. Sova said he met with Montcalm County commissioners Lindeman and Betty Kellenberger after the meeting to discuss the problem.
“Something’s got to be done,” Sova said. “I need some help. Townships need help. We’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t have money. Talking to EightCAP, they don’t have money. There’s nowhere for these people to go. I can’t talk to these people. I try to talk to these people, all they want to do is argue.”
In the meantime, the Vanconants recently moved off the property. Jessica Vanconant told The Daily News they are currently living in a camper somewhere on M-66 in Ionia County.
“They kicked us off the property,” Jessica Vanconant said. “I am not impressed with the township board and I am suing Tom Sova for everything he’s got because he never gave us no warning that we could not live on that property. I’m still fighting for that property. One way or another I’m going to put a singlewide in there.”
Jessica Vanconant admits the property is still in the name of Tony Rushford and Gwen Larsen, according to county records, but that doesn’t change her view of things.
“I will fight this until my last dying breath,” she said. “Somebody’s got to stand up for that property. That’s still our property.”
Cusack is going to fight alongside the Vanconants. He plans to bring the issue up again at the next Montcalm County Board of Commissioners meeting, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Sept. 23.