Homeowners fight historic commission in restoration project
October 06, 2010 - After living in Bridge Valley subdivision in Independence Township the past 15 years, Jim and Debbie Cousens were looking to move into a smaller house. James found a "fixer upper" for $100,000 at 164 North Main Street.
"The house was in total disrepair – we had squirrels, bringing apples into the bedrooms upstairs. It was just a mess," Debbie said. "When he said he wanted to buy it, I was like 'uhhh, I don't even see a future in this house.' There was plaster falling off the wall, water in the basement, it was just horrible."
They bought the house in October 2009. Both designers, working with building companies throughout Michigan, the Cousens were up to the task of cleaning the place up.
"I told my wife Debbie, go ahead, fix up the house," Jim said. "She'll restore the house back to its original glory back in 1924 when Thomas Edison designed it and Dr. Miller bought it."
Meanwhile Jim wanted to tear down the old garage with the roof caving in and build a new and bigger garage to hold his 50 foot motor coach as well as antique cars he keeps in his garage at Bridge Valley.
However, the 86 year old house came with a few other surprises. It was located within city limits and the "Clarkston Historic District," so any changes to be made to the exterior must be brought before Clarkston's Historic District Commission.
Michigan's Local Historic Districts Act, Public Act 169 of 1970, enables local governments to adopt a historic district ordinance with design review guidelines, said Charlotte Cooper, Historic District Commission chairwoman.
"The Historic District Commission was established to interpret the standards and guidelines," Cooper said.
Jim said no one told them they were in the Historic District, not even their real estate agent who sold them the house.
"We thought the historical district was downtown, past the brake shop (at Clarkston Road)."
However, wanting to "play by the rules," the Cousens applied for a permit to tear down the garage. First they had to get permission for the historic commission.
Jim said they walked in with their blueprints of what they wanted to do. When he was denied, he found out from his neighbor the property had a barn on it at one point. After receiving pictures of the old barn, he gave them to his architect and told him to match the specs exactly.
"I go back to the historical commission and I submit all the new plans, along with the photograph of the original barn – they are hard pressed in my opinion to say no," Jim said. "They have to say yes because I'm reconstructing what we had in 1924."
He was also approved by the Zoning Board for the barn.
The historic commission approved a Certificate of Appropriateness for lap siding on the garage in November 2009. However, 4-by-8 flat sheets of vertical siding were installed on the garage instead, Cooper said.
"The garage doors required a CoA, but were installed without going to the Commission, even though Mr. Cousens knew of the requirement," she said.
Jim said he filed proper paperwork to put the 4X8 flat sheets of vertical siding on both structures, and it was approved by the city building inspector and city manager.
"The requirement wasn't a requirement, it was a suggestion by them (the historic commission) – if we redo the siding on the barn, we do lap siding," Jim said. "The original barn had vertical wood siding on it."
They requested Certificates of Appropriateness on three items: windows in the house, removal of windows enclosing the front porch, and siding on the front dormer, Cooper said.
"We weren't replacing windows, we were trying to remove the old windows to have them restored if possible and in the process of removing them they disintegrated and fell apart in our hands," Jim said. "They were silicone shut from the previous owner, which was a violation according to the fire marshal."
Cooper said the commission denied all three requests because they did not attend a Feb. 17 meeting to review their application.
"(City Manager) Dennis Ritter called and said we should be at that meeting," said Jim. "I said I'd try but I have a work obligation and was in Saginaw and couldn't make it."
They appealed successfully, but it cost them over $10,000 in legal fees and two days in court hearings. They appeared before State Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules Administrative Law Judge Kenneth P. Poririer, who ruled in favor of the Cousens and passed it on to the State Historic Preservation Review Board, which voted 7-0 also in their favor.
"Incidentally, work on the windows had already begun in January, without a building permit, and before an application was submitted to the Historic District Commission," Cooper said. "Even before the end of the 60-day notification period, the installation continued. Despite two visits by the police chief, temporarily halting work, a Stop Work Order was ignored. The window installation continued and was completed by early March."
Jim said all those points had been asked in court and answered. The Cousens put over $250,000 in improvements to the home.
"We didn't deserve to be treated like this," Jim said. "We've been members of this community for a long time. I've taken antique cars in the parade. We support everything in this city and to be treated the way we've been treated is absurd."
Trevor graduated with degrees in English and communications from Rochester College. He wrote for his college and LA View newspapers before joining The Clarkston News in May 2007.