ELBERTA — Benzie County fruit farmer Loy Putney said he can't wait any longer.
Putney wants to move migrant families who work in his apple, cherry and peach orchards into an old motel he's renovated on the Village of Elberta's south side. But he's had no success obtaining a permit from village officials, whom he accuses of deliberately stalling to keep his workers out of the community.
"I produce three million pounds of fruit a year. It takes a lot of people," Putney said. "What they are trying to do is delay this another summer."
Putney spent more than a year trying to get village officials to approve his plans. The issue sparked a court case and accusations of racial bias against Hispanic American migrant workers.
Village officials dispute Putney's claims and contend he's failed to follow rules necessary to attain a permit to house migrants.
'No place to go'
Elberta is nestled on the Lake Michigan shoreline across Betsie Bay from Frankfort, its more upscale neighbor. There have been talks of condominiums taking root in the shadows of old produce warehouses and industrial relics.
Mexican-American worker Clemencia Rojo now calls Elberta home. She's worked in Michigan since she was 14, lived in one of Putney's two former camps for two years, and said the new apartments in the former Bay View Motel are a big improvement. Her children attend Frankfort-Elberta schools and the building is near a field where he son practices baseball.
"Over here we live in town," she said. "Where we used to live was a ranch."
Rojo's family is one of three families Putney recently moved into the former Bay View Motel without the village's permission. The village recently filed a stop work order for Putney to cease construction and remove all the occupants.
That effort makes Rojo nervous.
"If they make us leave we'll have no place to go," she said.
Putney said his former camps are no longer suitable for his workers and he spent about $80,000 on the new housing that passed state inspections. He said he's on his fourth permit application and can't wait through the growing season.
Village attorney Edgar Roy said Putney prolonged the matter by not following the correct process.
"I think the gracious way to say it is the ordinance applies equally to all projects across the village," Roy said. "It appears Mr. Loy Putney would prefer the ordinance-based standards don't apply to him."
Putney took his case to 19th Circuit Court after two of his applications were denied last year. He said the village at one point refused to give him the zoning ordinance.
Judge James Batzer in January upheld the village's denial, but ruled Putney could apply for an apartment permit, with reasonable conditions from the village.
But it took until May 17 for the Elberta Planning Commission to vote on sending a special use permit recommendation, with six conditions, to the village board to consider for final approval.
Putney's nephew and attorney Brad Putney said the village denied their initial land use permit early this year and requested "frivolous" information to "harass and delay the project further."
Planning commission member Linda Manville questioned the application's completeness during a contentious May 7 public hearing because many points in a 21-page response from Putneys were "too broad and too general."
Roy said the Putneys could have saved themselves time, and the village money, if they would have applied for the special land use permit in January. He said nothing stopped them from filing two permits at once.
"They cost the village $20,000 because they did not go through the right process," he said. "They went sideways."
Brad Putney said village leaders won't put the matter on the board's June 20 meeting agenda until the six conditions are addressed. He believes village officials are deliberately delaying the project on racial grounds, and as proof point to a comment made by Elberta Village Council member Ken Holmes during an early 2012 public meeting. Holmes was responding to the Putney's application for transient housing and read from the village's ordinance:
"This means transient. Period. That is our zoning. It was designed that way. We don’t want just any rhubarb coming in there and making a trash house out of that place."
Brad Putney said the sign-in table at the same meeting had copies of an article about beheadings and killings by Mexican drug cartels.
The planning commission's six conditions include "outdoor screening" requirements like fencing and vegetation around the property. Brad Putney said those conditions would separate the property and its occupants from the community.
"I don't think it should be screened all the way around. It's not a junkyard," he said. "They're trying to state it in a way that sounds helpful to us rather sounding like they’re trying to prevent our occupants from their property."
Roy said the only discrimination would be if the village makes rules exceptions for the Putneys. He said village officials only want information required by the ordinance to base reasonable conditions -- the same as for any other property.
"You can argue the village residents aren't protected if (planning commissioners) don't do their job," he said.