With No Discussion, Council Votes to Settle the Driveway Lawsuit

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Wednesday, January 22, 2020, 9:13 am
Alice Dreger

City Attorney Tom Yeadon (left) and City Manager George Lahanas converse before the vote last night.

East Lansing’s City Council members voted unanimously last night, with no discussion, to settle a lawsuit they never voted to start.

While the defendants are glad the suit over a residential driveway is over, they told ELi after the vote last night that the whole experience has left them disappointed and angry.

They are particularly disgusted that no one in the City has ever apologized for what they’ve been through: several rounds of wrong advice from planning and building department staff, threats of arrest, and now an expensive and stressful lawsuit.

“We’re not builders or cement-pourers. We don’t know the City’s code. We relied on them. And they turn around and threaten us with arrest warrants,” Michael Zydeck said. “It’s a very sad tactic to use to try to scare people.”

City Attorney Tom Yeadon decided – as Council has essentially given him the power to do – to sue the Zydecks because they refused to redo a newly constructed driveway at 444 Division Street, a property with a house the Zydecks bought for their daughter to live in while she attended MSU.

Yeadon admitted in his memo to Council recommending settlement that the driveway ended up bigger than Code allows because of “errors and miscommunications on the City’s part.”

Representatives of the City’s building department twice approved construction that turned out to violate the City’s code – even after a survey, permits, inspections, and hearings at the Zoning Board of Appeals.

By Michael Zydeck’s calculation, the new driveway is wider than Code allows by all of 1 foot and 4 inches. To settle the suit and fix the driveway, the City of East Lansing will reimburse the Zydecks $3,000 and reduce the size of the driveway – at a total cost to taxpayers that is yet to be determined.

Zydeck says the whole thing should have taken about three weeks and $6,000 of his money. Instead, it has taken “three years of pain and suffering and headache and stress” and about $13,000 cost to him.

“The building department of East Lansing is the most incompetent group of people I’ve ever dealt with in my entire life,” Zydeck said last night. “And that they have no culpability in this is just so frustrating to my wife and me. What they’ve put us through! They should be embarrassed, but they probably don’t care.”

In 2018 City staff told Zydeck that according to advice from Yeadon, “our only course of action available … is to pursue criminal charges and issue a complaint for your arrest.”

But that was never true – as the lawsuit proves. The City had at its disposal the option of fines and a lawsuit. The threats appear to have been issued just to get the Zydecks to comply.

Their attorney, Mark Grebner, told ELi in an interview last night that he wishes he had gotten his clients more money, to recoup more of their losses, including legal fees and court costs. But, Grebner said, Yeadon appeared to be willing to spend any sum of taxpayer money to keep that from happening.

“If you go into these things and you treat everybody like dirt,” Grebner said, “and you make clear you’re willing to waste any amount of money on legal fees, in effect, you always win.”

“One of their tactics,” he said, with an uncharacteristic tone of anger in his voice, “is to make clear that they are willing to spend any amount of money, so as a result of that, you better not face them in court, because you’ll end up spending three times as much winning as you will losing.”

Kimberly Zydeck said that they had put money in to try to improve the home’s curb appeal.

“We redid windows, floors, painted, redid the landscaping – we tried to do so much to make it better. We tried to make the driveway look good.”

What advice would Michael Zydeck give to people considering buying property in East Lansing?

“Don’t do it.”

Michael Zydeck and Mark Grebner both said that there was absolutely one thing they were not willing to negotiate in the settlement: the City would have to fix the driveway or they would not settle. They were not going to risk hiring more contractors and having the City say again that it was done wrong, even after permits and inspections.

Says Grebner, now if in rebuilding the driveway, the City finds that the City violated the Code, the City can threaten to arrest itself.


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