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April 2004

County Takes on Thundering Noise of Scrap Yard

By Helen Lounsbury Send an e-mail

Bay City, MI— It’s not her crooked oil paintings or rattling end tables that bother Judy Kavalunas most in her quake-prone West Branch Township home. Nor is it the view - scrap metal heaps 30 feet from her bedroom window.

What drives Ms. Kavalunas nuts is that she can no longer sit and relax on her porch, not since Rifkin Scrap Iron & Metal moved in last summer.

Rifkin’s thundering 20-ton crane, revving and crushing metal next door - routinely dropping cars and trucks from a giant magnet to compact them - makes it noxious to step outside her home during business hours, she says. A small legion in Ms. Kavalunas’ 50-unit mobile home park agree.

Now, after an eight-month struggle for relief with Rifkin and township and county officials, Ogemaw County is taking up Country Village Estates’ cause. Prosecutors filed suit against Rifkin last month, after county commissioners voted to pursue a legal remedy.

Their complaint asks Circuit Judge Michael J. Baumgartner to permanently close Rifkin’s operation on M-76, just off West Branch’s I-75 Business Loop.

The Saginaw-based company denies violating Ogemaw’s zoning ordinance. Rifkin is also filing a counter-complaint asking Ogemaw’s Circuit Judge to enter judgment against the county for more than $500,000 in damages, attorneys say.

“We knew we were sticking our finger in a light socket, that a huge lawsuit against the county might follow,” concedes Ogemaw Building and Zoning head, Al Derocher. “But at a certain point you just have to do what’s right, and take the heat that comes.”

Ogemaw County argues in its complaint that Rifkin misrepresented its plans when it applied for a special use permit in 2002. Rifkin has operated for years locally under the name West Branch Steel. Two years ago, the company sought to expand its operation to two acres bordering Country Village Estates. Doing so required getting the county’s special permit.

So Ogemaw’s planning commission held a public hearing in November 2002 to consider the Rifkin’s permit application. Rifkin’s property was already zoned for business, but didn’t allow “open-air businesses” - what the company sought - without a permit.

With assurances from Rifkin managers attending the hearing that their proposed land use wouldn’t change the surrounding area’s character, planners granted Rifkin’s permit with relatively little ado.

The company, in turn, invested more than $400,000 to improve its new lot, attorneys say. Rifkin opened its new scrap metal transfer station in June. Resident complaints started the same day.

“The county says we surprised and sandbagged them, that we did a soft-sell on what would happen at the new property,” says Rifkin lawyer Craig W. Horn of Saginaw’s Braun Kendrick Finkbeiner law firm. “We say there’s no mystery here. We were proposing to do exactly what we’d been doing up the road.”

County administrators disagree. Rifkin’s work may not have changed, but its volume has - to an extent it changes the very nature of its business, they argue.

The zoning classification Rifkin should have sought isn’t as an “open air business,” which covers car dealerships, fruit markets and the like, administrators say. Rather, Rifkin’s operation most closely fits “scrap yard” or “junk yard” under Ogemaw zoning rules.

Rifkin attorneys, meanwhile, fault Ogemaw planners for the mischaracterization. The counter-suit charges that the county “was solely responsible for classifying West Branch Steel’s operation.”

A judge, ultimately, will rule on responsibility, fault and remedy. Part of the “fault” Ogemaw may need to face down is that its building department staff didn’t notify park residents about Rifkin’s land use public hearing. Only the park manager received notice, administrators say.

Ogemaw’s move to sue Rifkin is also controversial to some. Commissioner Clyde Sheltrown, for example, opposed taking the company to court because it threatens to remove a thriving local business.

County action against Rifkin also jeopardizes Ogemaw’s own efforts to clean up its junk vehicles, appliances and other metal blight, some administrators say. Rifkin takes all such scrap in volume.

—Reprinted with permission from The Bay City Times


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