Halting Matty Moroun

The Windsor Star

By Chris Vander Doelen

In this late summer heat the cicadas are still buzzing high in the huge old trees on Indian Road next to the Ambassador Bridge. Underneath, a row of empty old houses rots quietly as they await their legal fate.

Olde Sandwich Towne is a classic, turn-of-the-20thcentury Canadian neighbourhood – except for the graffiti, collapsing verandas and boarded up windows. And the unbelievably bitter fight over its future.

Heavy weeds grow from most eavestroughs and trees poke through some roofs. Driveways are heaved, siding is covered with graffiti and litter collects in most yards. Sandwich doesn’t look much different than some abandoned neighbourhoods at the U.S. end of the bridge. Except that Windsor is not Detroit, and the neighbourhood is not abandoned. But the worst of it is owned by the bridge and its owner, trucking magnate Matty Moroun.

Mayor Eddie Francis says the “end game” of the Ambassador Bridge’s plans for the 120 homes it owns in Sandwich is to demolish the homes to double the size of its truck plaza on the Canadian side.

This week, City of Windsor building officials moved in on the houses to stop a hired crew from prepping for what was believed to be an illegal demolition of the homes.

The Ambassador Bridge started buying homes on the street in 1995, and it stopped all maintenance on the first empty one in 2004, Ontario Superior Court was told during a lawsuit in 2011. Then another, and another.

Most of their 112 homes are now such ugly scars on the neighbourhood the company was slapped last month with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit launched by remaining residents. They say their property values were deliberately destroyed by the bridge’s negligence of the homes it owns.

The bridge has until next week to respond to the lawsuit and it appears to Francis that the attempted work this week is an “escalation” of the disputes the two sides have been locked in for a decade.

The boarded-up homes of Indian Road not only stand in the way of the bridge building a double span, they are preventing the bridge from doubling the size of its truck plaza to the 80 acres it needs to protect its lucrative truck traffic.

The homes are also ostensibly protected by a pending Ontario Municipal Board hearing over the legality of the Windsor bylaws protecting them. But there has never been a company quite like the Ambassador Bridge when it comes to ignoring judicial orders.

The bridge keeps insisting with a straight face that it’s trying to do the right thing by tearing down the homes – even though the homes were in perfect shape until it deliberately allowed them to deteriorate. Says who? Says Superior Court Justice Richard Gates, who heard a damages case brought in 2009 by Sandwich property owners Hilary Payne and Lawrence Leigh against the rest of city council. Payne was not yet a city councillor.

The new lawsuit asks for damages because the bridge allegedly destroyed their property values on purpose.

The Gates ruling is a precedent for that finding: he wrote in his 2012 judgment that the bridge’s (CTC’s) “purchase and dereliction of more than 100 homes” was deliberate.

The current mess of Sandwich Towne exists, Gates wrote, because the CTC “chose not to deal with the blight it created.” Each of these phrases is potential dynamite that can blow up the Ambassador Bridge’s defence, and cost the company millions.

Because of his growing list of legal defeats on both sides of the border, Moroun now faces an overwhelming legal mountain to climb.

“We have to make sure they don’t demolish these homes,” Francis said Tuesday. “How do you get rid of a lawsuit” over blighted homes? “You tear down the houses.”

If you had to make an educated guess about the reactivated battle over Indian Road, it’s this: the Ambassador Bridge is badly rattled by the multimillion-dollar lawsuit, which appears to be based on the Gates ruling and others.

The Gates judgment is likely so airtight it can’t be overturned on appeal, or else the bridge would have tried. They appeal everything.

If I were the lawyers representing the residents of Sandwich, I’d ask the courts to expedite my lawsuit against the bridge because of its actions this week and its history in defying written orders.

Francis, himself a lawyer, says that is probably not possible. But why not ask and get it on the record – just in case the homes start disappearing in the middle of the night? Short of that, an around-the-clock voluntary surveillance team armed with video-capable cellphones might be in order for those who want to protect Indian Road and its urban forest.

If that sounds extreme, imagine how 40 more acres of bare white concrete would look at the Canadian end of bridge, where a heavily treed neighbourhood of brick homes now stands.

An enlarged Canadian plaza would look every bit as inhospitable as the cement moonscape created by Moroun & Co. at the U.S. end.