Couple claims county discriminated against them
WHITNEY TWP. — A couple looking to build a home in Whitney Township has filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights against Arenac County. County officials, however, deny charges of discrimination.
The couple, John Prescott and Dyann Salmi, are residents of Grosse Pointe Park, but own property in Whitney Township where they planned to build a retirement home. Salmi said construction has been delayed by problems with the township.
The couple said the refusal by the township and the county building department to extend a building permit for a mobile home is racially motivated, as Prescott is white and Salmi is black.
The primary issue stems from a construction trailer that was moved onto the property to store equipment and material. Prescott said he had planned to have it there temporarily until the home was complete, but later decided to keep it as a permanent structure after all the work needed to keep it on the property.
After applying for a permit extension in November, the couple received a permit rejection letter from Building Inspector Larry Watson, which said it would be difficult to bring the construction trailer at their property up to proper footing standards.
In the letter, Watson wrote that “after two years of dealing with the ownership and permit applicants changing between Mr. Prescott and Ms. Dyann Salmi who have presented themselves to this office as a couple, still no footing inspection has occurred.”
Whitney Township Zoning Officer Ernest Kata declined to give a statement, and said the township would need to discuss the issue with the township attorney first pending a lawsuit facing the township.
Watson dismissed the idea that the permit denial was racially motivated.
“There’s a code violation, no discrimination, just a code violation,” Watson said. “There’s an illegal mobile home set on the property. He got the permits, violated them, and we’re not going to play games with them anymore.”
Arenac County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Snyder said it appeared to him to be a noncompliance issue with permits rather than anything racially motivated.
“(The issue) centered around the idea that the lack of permit from Whitney Township is for some reason a decision made on the racial makeup of the people,” Snyder added.
Jacki Miller, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the complaint has been accepted and is still under investigation.
Whitney Township Supervisor Francis Semenick said the couple had not filed the proper paperwork with the register of deeds office, so he was not sure who would be the right person to give permits to.
“I’m not picking on her,” Semenick said. “The rules with them are no different than anyone else’s.”
Prescott, a builder by trade, dismissed Watson’s argument that the work would be difficult, saying the ground was sandy and easy to dig and set footing in around the construction trailer. He had intended to put in the footing over the winter, but discovered someone had broken into his trailer and stolen his concrete mixer, a wheelbarrow, and a construction heater.
Prescott received a ticket signed by Kata for blight dated June 18, which cites the mobile home being on the property without the permit extension. Salmi also received a ticket for blight based on construction materials on the property. Prescott said the materials mentioned had already been sold or moved off the property. A hearing has been scheduled for both at the 81st District Court July 17.
The couple believes their complaint is in order, however.
“If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s a duck,” Salmi said. “It’s discrimination and I’m sick of it.”