The Kolfage Report: Ludington Council Rejects Secure, Sound Development

The eighty minute Ludington City Council meeting of August 22, 2016 had its share of interesting topics mostly coming from the often quiet Buildings & Licenses Committee.  The not-too-controversial agenda still had its share of moments and had the City moving in directions that should send red flag alerts to the citizens.  Beyond the "Wreck Les Speaking" at the very end, here is what happened one week ago with the topic of the modest zoning code amendment inspired by Keith Kolfage. 

Yours truly was the only one to address the council during the initial public comment, referencing two of the topics that the council would address.  The comments begin at the 2:40 mark of the video after the preliminaries are addressed, a partial transcript follows the video concerning the topic of the proposed ordinance I was in favor of regarding less strict zoning laws.

August 22nd, 2016 Ludington City Council meeting from Mason County District Library on Vimeo.

XLFD:  "The problems that have arisen between the City and the owners of the Summer's Inn illustrates the limitations and absurdities of planning and zoning.  The owners want to enclose a porch for security of their guests and for noise abatement from the nearby highway.  On the other hand, the City has got in the way of this simple request, citing some zoning ordinances on the books and how they feel the need to enforce it strictly is needed in this case.

It mostly matters not to the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals that other motels in the district are non-compliant with the rules on the city's zoning books, it matters not how many times this enclosed porch is taken advantage of by trespassers onto the property.  It matters not that the open porch is rendered mostly useless to their guests by the noise of 50 mph traffic passing by. 

It does matter that they have an un-natural control over Summer's Inn's use of their own property, that they can use their leverage to enforce some fairly arbitrary regulations in our zoning code, as if they are immutable.  Funny, when the rezoning of the proposed North Washington apartments by Mitch Bogner came to the forefront, the same people on these appointive boards bent over backwards in order to get them approved despite what the master plan and zoning code said.  You guys even created new zoning law to bypass the older law obstructing it. 

In that case, the community came out almost unanimously against the attempt to rezone the property, while our local government rammed it through, breaking the old and some of the new rules.  In this case, the community has come out almost unanimously for the changes, only to find city officials standing in the way of the Summer's Inn owners bettering their business and the community.  How long does the city want to carry a grudge against these folks, who only want to provide a better and more secure environment for Ludington's guests?..."

For those unfamiliar with the property and the history of disputes between the owner and the city here is a brief recap.  The owner of the Summer's Inn is Keith Kolfage and his wife Suzette.  Back in 2002, Kolfage was President of the Ludington Area Convention and Visitor's Bureau (LACVB) and had been given credit as the person who had the original idea to convert the old coast guard station into a museum, which is currently coming into fruition. 

But then he decided that the 2001 property tax valuation on his property (called at that time the Four Seasons) was more than double than what his own assessor using a variant method said it was, and the dispute went to the Michigan Tax Tribunal.  A ton of money for attorney and other fees later, the tribunal settled in late 2004 on an intermediate figure closer to the City's original assessment, and John Shay did a victory lap at the time:  "We’re pleased with the decision of the Michigan Tax Tribunal, we felt all along our position was the right position."

Kolfage's observations at the time were:  “Without a more enlightened approach to valuation, we will continue to see businesses move out of town.  What we’re fighting for is my right and my wife’s right for our labor to be recognized.  By allowing the wages, the tribunal would have helped put small owner-operator businesses on a more level playing field with franchise motels.  The decision comes at a time when the city has several motels for sale.  These are things that a judge in Lansing, doesn’t have a clue about.”

Kolfage would then raise the issue again for the 2003, 2004, and 2005 valuations of the property, suggesting the method the tax tribunal settled on in the previous case would lower his valuations and tried to settle things with the City out of court, until the City backed out of that agreement. 

City Manager Shay admitted that negotiating an agreement was frustrating because Kolfage would not talk to officials off the record on the phone or in person, but only in writing or with media present and recording the negotiations.  Kolfage was wisely aware of the City's/Shay's tactics by that time, and tried to use the media to his advantage in showing the greediness of the City (from the August 7, 2006 COLDNews opinion forum): 

The dispute eventually reached the tax tribunal with the additional year of 2006 added and Kolfage serving as his own attorney after his original attorney's employment was terminated, but when the Final decision was rendered in 2008 the court had not been impressed enough to alter the original 'neutral' appraisers valuations.  In that same year, however, the City did grant him an OPRA Certificate for the motel. 

Part of the eventual projects he committed to was the addition of an open porch to serve as an addition to his dining facilities.  It is clear from the record that he wanted this addition to be an enclosed porch area, but the zoning code would not allow it.  At times, this porch would attract unwanted overnight guests and not deflect the traffic noise on a portion of Ludington Avenue where speeds are rather high.  Kolfage put up windows in order to mitigate the problem, thereby making it into an enclosed porch and earning the wrath of the City's zoning authorities who would not allow it. 

Kolfage went before the Zoning Board of Appeals in order to address his non-compliance and desire to have the zoning code modified to allow his change, after removing the windows.  Not once, not twice, but three times, in 2012, in 2013, and in 2014.  Unanimous rejection followed, but Kolfage persisted. 

It came before the Planning Commission later in 2014 after being referred to them from committee and once again this year in June, with Commissioner Starr (a former ZBA member) stating in the record: (Starr) would like to point out that he is very disappointed that the City Council did not stand up and end this issue. They are passing the buck.  He felt like the City Council (committee) could have stood up and ended this issue instead of being wishy washy and sending it back to them for a second time.

At this city council meeting, the City took Starr's words to heart, while Keith Kolfage stayed quiet.  The council took up the issue (38:40 into the meeting) as to whether to change the zoning code to allow for an enclosed porch in the motel/resort zoning district with the 10 foot setback.  Councilor Winczewski introduced the proposed zoning ordinance with the reduction of the setback from 25 ft. to 10 ft. to the council.  She had noted the long history of the ordinance and provided that the Kolfages had recently pointed out that other motels in the district were out of compliance after having them surveyed by Noah Penn of Point's West Land Surveying, which was included with the council packet. 

 

Clearly, six other motels are not in compliance with the zoning stricture, four (in yellow highlights) are worse offenders than the Summer's Inn if we accept this licensed surveyor's report, which has implicitly been accepted by the City since its appearance.   Furthermore, since 1980, all six of these non-compliant motels have received satisfaction from the local ZBA and PC in requesting variances similar to the one that Kolfage was requesting, albeit none since 1996.

With that also in their packets along with additional pleadings by Kolfage, the council chose a path which they took in a most confused manner.  Instead of a motion put on the floor to accept the first reading of the ordinance, Winczewski made a motion to accept the Planning Commission's recommendation to not adopt the ordinance, seconded by Councilor Johnson. 

Between Councilor Castonia and Winczewski bantering negatively about the implication of the ordinance, Councilor Krauch interjected his own thoughts on the topic, which were against shelving the issue.  Krauch, undoubtedly thinking of the legal ramifications of the denial despite the widespread non-conforming motels in the district, urged them to not table the topic and instead to bring it up for vote after discussion.  He believed that cleaning up the ordinance to bring more of these properties into compliance would be better for the district, and not send wrong signals to those who may wish to improve their property (or potential buyers but are saddled with a lot of additional 'nonsense' and an inflexible system. 

The city council decided with Krauch's lone dissenting vote, that they would not bring the zoning change to the next meeting.  For whatever action our persistent citizen/activist decides to take, don't be surprised that when the dust clears they will once again blame Keith Kolfage for all the strife.   

For me, I can only be impressed with Keith Kolfage's resolve in the search for justice.  If the City of Ludington wants to stand in the way of that, oppressively and tyrannically trying to tell him how he has to follow special rules while others don't, then be aware of why there is a problem in the first place. 

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I'm assuming this is the reason the Kolfage's do not participate in the annual flower planting along the curb of their property each spring. I don't understand why the zoning code must be changed. Why does the City not grant a variance to allow the non conforming use of the property, namely the set back requirements? I was also amazed to read that such a large amount of the Kolfage's income is paid out in property tax. I believe the amount stated was 13.5 % of their gross income revenues. That's huge. It's to bad this situation has been allowed to hang in the wind for so long. It seems that Ludington's establishment is only friendly toward those who are in the loop of this good ol boy system of governance that controls Ludington.  Well written article X.

Having not attended the B&LC meetings, I believe the new tactic to change the zoning code was made by Councilor Krauch in an effort to make the Kolfage property and three other motels fall within the rules.  I can respect this position as a convenient way to handle it, but I believe the majority of our officials look at it as a capitulation to Keith Kolfage and his ever-changing porch. 

It's the same thing with the variance; these planning commissioners and ZBA members are trained to avoid giving out variances because they want established zoning codes to be as absolute as possible.  The problem is that many of the regulations are either arbitrary or borrowed from other areas and don't work with what we have already pre-established here. 

Also, as noted, when the governing body sees the $$$ of development (as in the Bogner acquisition and the downtown bowling alley block) the zoning code seems to be quite a bit more flexible for non-conforming conditions and improvements.

Wow, just got to read and digest most of this long thread. But, I think I have also talked to and made friends with Kolfage many years ago, over 10 years imho. A very smart and simple individual, one whom loves life, works hard, said he was moving out then, but wants equality with other similar competitors, and the COL for sidewalk and other porch improvements. I thought he and wife sold out long ago, they were successful and improving business, and then got bashed by CM Shyster Shay, early in his Corrupt Career, very sad to this very day now. This dates for sure, but is also to our present time, can't believe this. I'm very impressed with X for this intensive and methodical old research, it just goes to show, since some have "taken over in Lud. as stooges/appointees for Major Positions in politics, we have much to be shameful about". Change for the present and future is desperately needed, and still doesn't come right now, in any numbers anyhow. Guess the COL needs more, because, it doesn't send new candidates in to replace the "unopposed" one still hanging on today.

In April of 2015, Keith Kolfage snuck into and signed onto the Ludington Torch but has remained quiet ever since.  Hopefully he either Googles his own name or is alerted to the article here so that he can add his own two cents.  As always, the City of Ludington is welcome to correct any erroneous fact or assertion as well.

Most of my sourcing comes from minutes and articles from the COLDNews, and often these don't tell the whole story as pertains to the citizen; to the contrary, they skew it towards the 'official' story of events which rarely is accurate or complete. 

This is a piece of commercial property right? I thought the rules/law were that you could build property line to property line with no set back. At least thats what it was when I owned property down town. Also there was no right to light which meant I could build higher up against another structure even if they had windows that would be covered up, blocking their view or exit.. Maybe different in a residential area though.

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