Clean it up! Unionville officials crack down on blighted properties

DSC01284_converted (1)UNIONVILLE — Village of Unionville officials fed up with blight in the community are taking steps to clean up the town, including levying heavy fines and even talking condemnation.

According to documents obtained by The Advertiser through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, three property owners sent letters Aug. 31 and advised to clean up their property within 14 days.

Jessica VanHove, clerk, village of Unionville, told The Advertiser three other letters were sent, as well, but they could not be provided because they are part of a “police investigation.”

The letters are brief and to the point: fail to eliminate identified blight within 30 days and owners will face fines of up to $500 a day.

 “I say we send a copy of the ordinance to all these building owners and say ‘Read this, and find yourself, because you’re in here,’” said Ralph Rasch, trustee, village of Unionville, during the council’s Aug. 15 meeting.

Rasch added that the village needs to let property owners know that officials are “taking some kind of action” unless properties are cleaned.

Residents who spoke with The Advertiser were ecstatic that the officials are taking action, especially in light of other recent improvements and points of pride in village, such as upgraded roads and parks.

Leon Stecker, 74, who raised a family in Unionville and is part of the Unionville Community Association, was one of two who presented a list of particularly problematic properties to the council in July.

“What we’re trying to do, is get the community back on its feet,” Stecker told The Advertiser.

Stecker pointed out that it’s problematic so many vehicles travel through Unionville, but few have reason to stop.

According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, about 5,200 vehicles travel M-25 west of Unionville daily. MDOT records also show that 4,900 vehicles travel M-24 north of Unionville and about 2,000 vehicle travel M-24 south of Unionville daily.

That means about 5,000 vehicles are traveling through Unionville daily.

Yet, the only businesses that appear to be open regularly are two gas stations, two bars, and several car repair businesses.

“What we want to do is make it attractive enough so that people will want to invest in our community, put some businesses back in that community, and create an improved tax base for the community,” Stecker said.

Stecker added that even if Unionville is going to serve as more of a “bedroom community” – one where people commute to and from every day – “then we should do whatever it takes to make it the best bedroom community it can be.”

A good start, he said, has been provided by the state. (Story continues below photo)DSC01301_converted

MDOT is nearing completion of a $4.4 million project along M-25/M-24 through Unionville that includes resurfacing and drainage improvements.

The contrast between the new roads and empty sidewalks and dilapidated buildings is almost surreal as broken glass and crumbling bricks-and-mortar abut new asphalt.

“We have a problem downtown because the buildings are falling apart,” Stecker said. “And when we approach the owners of the buildings, they won’t do anything to improve them.

“We told them we would have someone come in and paint them and they said ‘Well you can buy the paint, too,’” Stecker said. “That was their attitude.”

At least six properties in Unionville have been identified as “blighted.”

Due to the identified “police investigation,” the addresses of three of the properties were not provided to The Advertiser.

However, during the Aug. 15 council meeting, several buildings along Bay Street (M-25) toward M-24 – the area sometimes referred to as “downtown Unionville” – were discussed. Stecker also mentioned them as being identified as problems.

Some of the “main drag” buildings were described as “sagging” and in violation of the village ordinance regarding blight for numerous reasons, including no longer being habitable or useful for the purpose they were originally intended, among other reasons.

It was pointed out that a large, glass windowpane had recently fallen on the sidewalk from one of the buildings.

Piles of old, rotting wood are stacked behind a building that used to house the Whistle Stop USA café.

Several windows have red, white, and blue decorations that were put up at one point in an attempt to celebrate the Unionville-Sebewaing Area Schools (USA) Patriots’ colors and theme.

A movie poster advertising the movie “Kiss of the Dragon” – released in 2001 – inexplicably hangs in one of the most visible windows.

A mish-mash of old painted boards and crumbling brick and mortar is prevalent, too.

“A lot of the windows are so old, if you touch them they’ll break,” Stecker said. “They put an artificial front on some of them and that’s all falling off.

“It just does not look good,” Stecker said. “We’ve got to do something about the buildings.”

Unionville officials seem to agree and discussed blight in the village at length during their Aug. 15 meeting, considering what options are available.

“We have got to do something,” said Village President John Katnik during the meeting.

The board discussed sending the letters as well as other options, such as  boarding up the windows of the biggest building in the downtown area – known as the “Kemp Building” and former home to J.H. Kemp & Co., which sold everything from groceries to clothing and hardware in the early 1900s.

A “For Sale” sign in the Kemp Building window had a Florida phone number but there was no answer Friday.

“They don’t want to board it up, then we do it and send them a bill,” said Katnik, who was clearly frustrated during the meeting and read several sections of the village ordiance regarding blight into the record.

“I want it condemned,” said Trustee Rasch. (Story continues below photo)DJI_0647

Consistent with Stecker’s statement about making the entire community attractive for investment, Unionville officials aren’t just looking at the buildings most visible from the busiest roads.

In fact, the three known properties alleged to be blighted and identified in documents obtained by The Advertiser are:

  • 3252 Church Street, owned or occupied by Carl Strieter      
  • 6643 Merry Street, owned or occupied by Sam Strieter
  • 6709 Center Street, owned or occupied by Craig Freeman

The Advertiser went to each location to try and talk to someone, but no one answered doors at any of the locations. Working telephone numbers could not be found.

“You have thirty (30) days from the date of this letter to abate, remedy, or otherwise eliminate the conditions…which violate the Anti-Blight Ordinance,” each letter states. “Should you fail to do so, you shall be guilty of a municipal civil infraction and be liable for a civil fine of up to $500 each day this violation continues, along with any costs and expenses permitted by law.”

Each letter is specific to the type of blight alleged.

At 3252 Church Street, Carl Strieter is warned for allegedly violating the village’s ordinance with regard to “storage or repair of disabled motor vehicles in excess of 14 days.” Several neighbors interviewed by The Advertiser who didn’t want to be identified due to fear of repercussion said they were delighted at the news.

At 6643 Merry Street, Sam Strieter is alleged to be in violation of village ordinance with regard to storing, accumulating, or permitting “the storage or accumulation of junk, refuse, or garbage on premises, owned leased, rented or occupied.”

Probably the most visible of the properties – at 6709 Center Street – Freeman also is alleged to be in violation of Unionville’s blight ordinance due to “the storage or accumulation of junk refuse or garbage.”

The Center Street property is along M-25 north of the village’s main intersection and at one time served as a gas station. It is one of the first things people coming into Unionville from the north see – once they pass the broken “Welcome to Unionville: Gateway to The Thumb” sign.

Stecker said he has witnessed Unionville change over the years and envisions a day when the most visible part of the village doesn’t look like what one person identified  to The Advertiser as “a post-apocalyptic movie set.”

He recounted days when the village had as many as four grocery stores at one time along with a pharmacy, barber shops, hardware and clothing stores, and a diner “that had the best burgers you could get anywhere.”  People walked down the streets, greeting neighbors.

He said things began to change decades ago, but previous leadership failed to embrace change themselves. He pointed to a time when Coca-Cola wanted to build a distribution center in Unionville but officials didn’t think it was in the village’s best interest.

Stecker said he’s encouraged by the current council’s approach, a group that raised the question themselves of how things have become the way they are today.

“What I want to know is how have we dealt with this before?” VanHove asked during the August meeting.

“We haven’t,” Katnik said.

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]

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