A Wayne County judge on Wednesday denied Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun’s request to dismiss condemnation proceedings on properties he owns in the pathway of a new Detroit River bridge.
“The defendants … have a long history of taking action to delay the building of the Gordie Howe International Bridge,” Wayne County Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert Colombo Jr. said. “This is just another example of their attempt to delay construction of this bridge.”
Moroun’s legal team, led by former Attorney General Mike Cox, asked the judge to dismiss the Michigan Department of Transportation’s condemnation proceedings on 17 Moroun-owned properties in southwest Detroit until the Michigan Court of Claims hears another Moroun lawsuit challenging the legality of the project.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s very little merit to your motion,” Colombo told Cox during a Wednesday morning court hearing in Detroit.
Cox had argued that MDOT’s condemnation of Moroun’s land in the pathway of a new bridge and toll and customs plaza could not be adjudicated in Circuit Court while Moroun’s companies are contesting the legality of the condemnation in a different courtroom.
“Our claim isn’t about money. Our claim is about authority,” Cox said. “… We can’t bring Gov. Snyder into this courtroom in a condemnation proceeding. We have to take it where the Legislature told us to take it.”
In early December, MDOT offered a Moroun company $11.5 million for a portion of his 42-acre Central Transport trucking terminal on Jefferson Avenue. Up to one-third of the 300-bay trucking terminal and a fuel station at the facility may need to be demolished to make way for the bridge’s landing ramps.
The lawsuit was filed five days before MDOT’s deadline for Moroun companies to accept the agency’s “good faith” offer for the properties it is buying on behalf of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, which is overseeing the $4.5 billion infrastructure project.
Colombo called the lawsuit “a pre-emptive strike,” agreeing with MDOT’s private attorney that Moroun “ran” to the Court of Claims to get ahead of a condemnation lawsuit being filed in Wayne County Circuit Court.
“It appears to me the claims filed by the defendants in the Court of Claims is an attempt to stall or delay the condemnation proceedings,” the judge said.
Moroun’s companies are among a handful of businesses that have rejected MDOT’s purchase offers for land the agency needs to build the bridge and plaza.
But unlike Moroun, most of the other business owners are trying to get more money out of MDOT for their property and relocation costs.
Mark Zausmer, a special assistant attorney general representing MDOT, argued Wednesday in court that the condemnation process favors property owners if a case goes to a jury trial.
Zausmer, who helped author the state’s eminent domain laws, said the expanded rights of property owners to more money for their property comes with a trade-off that government agencies can get quick access to the property for public infrastructure projects.
“The trade was simple: In exchange for all of those extraordinary protections that a property owner was given on their money, the agency was given one thing — and one thing only — and that is that public projects are not going to be held up by a single owner whether it was for money for some other purpose,” Zausmer said.
After Colombo made his ruling in MDOT’s favor, Zausmer predicted Moroun would “run to the Court of Appeals.”
Cox asked Colombo to stay his ruling pending an appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals. The judge denied the request and again cited Moroun’s “long history in attempting to frustrate” the construction of a new bridge to Canada.
“I think Judge Colombo’s very smart, but I just think he had it wrong,” Cox said after the hearing.
Chad Livengood: (313) 446-1654