Planning Group Postpones Jesuit Request

A controversial request to allow up to six Jesuits to live together at 1919 Wayne St. did not secure sufficient votes for approval from Ann Arbor planning commissioners at their June 3, 2014 meeting, following about an hour of public commentary and two hours of deliberations.

However, at the end of the meeting – near midnight – commissioners voted to reconsider the item, and then subsequently voted to postpone action until their next meeting on June 17.

The request – by the Ann Arbor Jesuit Community, formally known as the USA Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus – is for a special exception use to allow a “functional family” to live in a house zoned R1C (single-family dwelling). Without the special exception use, up to four unrelated people could live there.

The code that allows this special exception use was adopted in 1991, but this is the first time any group has requested it. The members are affiliated with the St. Mary Student Parish.

Approval required six votes, but the request initially garnered support from only five of the seven commissioners who were present. Voting against it were Diane Giannola and Kirk Westphal. Two commissioners – Sabra Briere and Paras Parekh – were absent. An attempt earlier in the meeting to postpone the vote had failed, with a majority of commissioners wanting to take action that night, assuming it would pass. The final vote to postpone – taken after all other agenda items were dispatched – was 6-1, over dissent from Giannola.

The six unrelated members of the household are considered a “functional family” for purposes of the city’s zoning code, defined as follows: “a group of people plus their offspring, having a relationship which is functionally equivalent to a family. The relationship must be of a permanent and distinct character with a demonstrable and recognizable bond characteristic of a cohesive unit.” The residents would be members of the religious order at St. Mary’s Student Parish, or pursuing degrees at the University of Michigan or other local institutions.

The group’s application describes how the Jesuits live as a “functional family.” The statement reads, in part:

As a functional family, we refer to one another, when speaking of each other collectively, as “brothers.” Our unity is based upon our religious commitment to live together as a religious family. As brothers related to one another by our common vows and commitment to service in the Church, we are, like a family, one another’s primary support system.

The basis of our living as a household is not temporary or dependent on the University school year or any such seasonal arrangement or pattern, as a fraternity or sorority would typically be. Jesuits living in structured households under a superior has been an integral part of the religious order for centuries, and the Jesuits who will live at 1919 Wayne will be participating in that centuries old tradition.

Wayne Street is located on the city’s near east side, between Washtenaw Avenue and Vinewood Boulevard, in Ward 2.

No exterior changes are planned to the structure of the house, which has about 4,000 square feet with seven bedrooms and two bathrooms. The Jesuits indicated that they’d like to reconfigure the interior to use one of the bedrooms as a guest room and to add two bathrooms.

The special exception use would be contingent on providing off-street parking spaces for each vehicle used by the residents. [.pdf of staff memo]

During the project’s public hearing, 21 people spoke – the majority of them opposed to the request, including representatives from the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association and the North Burns Park Association. Concerns included the possibility of lower property values, the chance of opening the door to student housing or cults, instability of the household because members aren’t related, and “gender housing discrimination.”

Some people directed criticism against the power, privilege and abuse of the Catholic church. Other praised the Jesuits, saying their concerns were strictly related to the zoning code, which they didn’t feel permitted this type of living arrangement in the R1C district. They suggested that the Jesuits could live in other districts – like R4C – that would allow for up to six unrelated people to live together without getting a special exception use.

Three Jesuits who plan to live there – including Ben Hawley, pastor and director of campus ministry for the St. Mary Student Parish – attended the meeting. Rev. Daniel Reim, who serves as the head of household, apologized for the controversy that this request has caused. The group currently lives in a smaller house on Ferdon, which they said they’ve outgrown. Some supporters of the request noted how the men are good neighbors on Ferdon. The former owner of that house noted that nearby properties he’s built or renovated had sold for over $1 million, saying that the argument about hurting property values was “silly.”

Giannola voted against the request, saying she didn’t think the Jesuits fit the description of a “functional family.” Westphal said he wanted to get more information from the city attorney’s office about the risk of setting a precedent, and whether there could be conditions on the special exception use that would address concerns about the turnover of residents. Planning staff reported that the city attorney’s office had already vetted the item, but they will now make additional queries based on commissioners’ feedback.

There’s some question about whether a delay will affect the sales contract that the Jesuits have with the current owner, who also attended the meeting. Planning manager Wendy Rampson said she’d contact them on Wednesday morning to communicate the commission’s action.

The public hearing will be re-opened on June 17, to allow for additional public input.

One additional wrinkle at that meeting will be the composition of the commission. Two commissioners who supported the request – Jeremy Peters and Eleanore Adenekan – will be absent, and another supporter, Ken Clein, indicated that he might also be unable to attend. So it’s possible that there will only be six commissioners at that meeting – which means all commissioners would need to vote yes in order for it to pass.

The planning commission has discretion to grant a special exception use, which does not require additional city council approval.

One of the Ward 2 city councilmembers, Jane Lumm, attended the planning commission meeting, but did not formally address the commission. Westphal – the planning commission’s chair – is running for city council in the Ward 2 Democratic primary against Nancy Kaplan.

This brief was filed from the second-floor council chambers at city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]


  1. By Kevin S. Devine
    June 4, 2014 at 10:20 am | permalink

    In a city that I would think would be open to a variety of interpretations of the term “functional family,” I’m surprised by the negative response of some folks to the request by the Jesuits. These are good people who are deeply involved in some of our biggest social justice issues on a local level and who contribute to the well-being of our community. I’m hoping the next meeting proves successful for their bid and if not, that a better opportunity will arise.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 4, 2014 at 10:35 am | permalink

    Mr. Devine is way more diplomatic than I am. This sounded like a hate filled mob, with all this talk about ‘cults’ ‘power, privilege and abuse of the Catholic church’ hiding behind the white hood of ‘protecting our property values’. Hopefully this will be resolved in a positive way, the Jesuits will be welcome in the neighborhood with the follow up vote and appointees like Diane Giannola will be required to take sensitivity training so she understands that the term ‘functional family’ doesn’t just mean rich, elite white people who own property in the neighborhood.

  3. By Peter Nagourney
    June 4, 2014 at 10:58 am | permalink

    Zoning Ordinance Section 5:7(5) identifies the standard for a “functional family” as: “a group of people plus their offspring, having a relationship which is functionally equivalent to a family. The relationship must be of a permanent and distinct character with a demonstrable and recognizable bond characteristic of a cohesive unit.”

    The issue wasn’t any attack on the Jesuit organization or the individual petitioners, but the validity of Planning Commission staff (and city attorney) interpretation of the specific Zoning Ordinance language defining “functional family.” The local Jesuit’s allegiance is to the Jesuit organization, not to their co-residents, and there will be nothing permanent about their relationship since some residents will be graduate students who will cycle out of Ann Arbor according to the needs of the Chicago Society of Jesus order (who would be the building’s owner). Much of the argument and discussion presented during the discussion was off topic if not irrelevant and illogical. And except for two speakers, no one had anything but praise and respect for the individual Jesuit brothers.

  4. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 4, 2014 at 11:21 am | permalink

    The City Attorney’s Office hasn’t had a very stellar track record lately and should be fired, but that’s anothr issue. And if the Courts find this Ordinance results in preventing the free and unresticted practice of the Jesuits’ religion, and living in this fashion is part of that practice, then the City is going to lose, no matter how many ways they want to interpret what ‘functional family’ means. I wouldn’t want to be defending this unconstitutional law in court. I would suggest all of the Planning Commission members show up next time and that the exception is granted.

  5. By Mary Morgan
    June 4, 2014 at 11:42 am | permalink

    It’s worth noting that prior to the June 3 meeting, the planning staff and commission received 23 communications on this item, which are attached to the meeting agenda – 15 opposing the request and 8 in support. The letters include one from Scott Munzel, a local attorney who was hired by the Oxbridge Neighborhood Association to represent them on this issue, and one from Cevin Taylor, a local attorney representing the Jesuits. [.pdf of Munzel's letter] [.pdf of Taylor's letter]

    All of the letters are posted on the city’s Legistar system and can be downloaded there: [link]

  6. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 4, 2014 at 11:58 am | permalink

    Thanks for posting the supporting attorney memos. Very fascinating stuff.

  7. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 4, 2014 at 2:11 pm | permalink

    The letter from Shadigian and Jackson is very enlightening:

    “Criminal background checks, through the State of Michigan and the FBI, of any proposed residents of this home still would not assure us that no one under investigation/suspicion of sexual offenses is housed, even temporarily, at 1919 Wayne Street. There is no known successful treatment of sex offenders and recidivism is practically 100%. Our neighborhood and Ann Arbor government would be profoundly irresponsible and collusive to offer the Jesuits and Catholic Church indefinite access to our children by this housing change.”

  8. By Jeff Hayner
    June 4, 2014 at 2:46 pm | permalink

    What is one probable result of this delay and indecision by planning commission? People will stop coming before the city, and just do what they want without seeking city approval. This happens all the time in the Historic Districts, property owners are in such fear of delays, added expenses, and poor outcomes that work is deferred, or just done without proper permitting. Neither is a preferable outcome, but that IS what is happening.

    What would have been the outcome had this home been sold, and no one notified of the change in family makeup? Would the neighbors have ever known? It is a seven bedroom house, for goodness sake. There is enough room for everyone.

    And speaking to the need in the city to increase density, which many of the planning commission members are clearly in favor of- why must all this density be gained only in the downtown areas though high-rise stack and pack new construction? Small changes to permitted uses in the neighborhoods would go a long way towards adding density to the city in an environmentally friendly way. This planning commission continues to miss the forest for the trees.

  9. By Mary Morgan
    June 4, 2014 at 3:07 pm | permalink

    Re. “The letter from Shadigian and Jackson…”

    Here’s a .pdf of the letter: [link]

  10. By Jeff Hayner
    June 4, 2014 at 3:44 pm | permalink

    To clarify it has not been my experience that HDC is to be avoided. I think they do a fine job in support of historic preservation.

  11. June 4, 2014 at 4:58 pm | permalink

    My gracious. What will these Priests do to the neighborhood. Pray it down? What a foolish discussion.

  12. By Bruce Skinner
    June 5, 2014 at 8:17 pm | permalink

    What I find in reading the letter from Shadigan and Jackson is it strikes me as purely emotional. These two residents are coming out with their reasons why the dislike the Jesuits without providing any evidence as to why the Jesuit order is guilty of the wrongs committed by some Catholics.

    First, they by criticize the Jesuits for being a male only order, but neglect to mention that there are female only orders in the church as well. The Sisters of Charity is one that comes to mind. They mention the sex abuse scandal that hit the Catholic Church, and at the end of their letter, they state they are parishioners of St. Thomas Parish. Well, we could turn around and use their logic in their letter to state that they are as guilty of what they criticize the Jesuits for since they are members of the same church.

    Second, it would be unjust of anyone to accuse every single member of any community, be it a church, profession, ethnicity, etc., of the wrongs committed by some members. Shaidigian is a physician, and we can find instances of physicians who have committed acts most people would find horrendous. One physician here in Ann Arbor had to give up his practice for exhibiting acts of pedophilia. Here’s the link to that case: [link]. We have another Detroit area physician who is currently in prison and set to go to trial for milking insurance companies by treating his patients with unnecessary cancer related treatments. The link to that is here: [link]. The other author of that letter is a social worker. Jackson is a social worker, and here’s a link to an article where a social worker was sentenced for sex abuse: [link].

    Based on their logic, it appears to me Shadigian and Jackson should move out of that neighborhood since they come from professions that have registered sex offenders as well. Their logic is flawed. Let’s get serious now. Every group has perverts, heretics, hypocrites, etc. Shadigian and Jackson’s complaint is based on pure emotion, and we don’t make decisions like this on emotion. Whatever the final decision is on this issue, let it be based purely on facts and the law.

  13. June 7, 2014 at 9:52 am | permalink

    There is a federal statute intended to protect religious institutions from being “zoned out” by municipalities. Its abbreviation is “RILUPA”, which I think means “Religious Institutions Land Use Protection Act”. The basic idea is that a government has to have an extraordinary reason to restrict land use.

    Why hasn’t this statute been considered? Is housing not considered religious?

  14. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 8, 2014 at 6:47 am | permalink

    David, sounds like the City Attorney’s office isn’t aware of any laws outside from outside of Ann Arbor.

  15. By Andrew L. Bemish
    June 11, 2014 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    I am writing this comment as a long-time lawyer in private practice who sees much controversy over something that has been well settled law in Michigan since 1984.

    The definition of “functional family” has been settled since July 19, 1984 by our Supreme Court in the case of Charter Township of Delta v. Dinolfo, 419 Mich 253. [link]
    In this case, the Court found an ordinance limiting occupancy to a “traditional” family unit too restrictive and unconstitutional in light of Defendants’ living as a functional family.

    This family unit consisted of two biological families living with six single unrelated adults in the same household. The common bond shared by these individuals was their membership in the Work of Christ Community, a legitimate religious organization recognized by our State’s government as an ecclesial non-profit entity and a federally qualified tax exempt organization.
    The Court stated:

    “Each of these households functions as a family in a single housekeeping unit and members intend to reside in their respective households permanently. All of the members of these “families” have adopted their lifestyle as a means of living out the Christian commitment that they stress is an important part of their lives.” (Dinolfo at 258.)

    The Court later held:

    “We conclude that this ordinance, which prohibits the defendants from including in their households six unrelated persons, is unreasonable and arbitrary and, accordingly, in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Michigan Constitution.” (Dinolfo at 258.)

    In this matter, the Jesuit Community meets the definition of a functional family just as the Work of Christ Community did in living out their Christian commitment. No other decision is possible without the Planning Commission acting to deny the Jesuit’s their rights guaranteed by Michigan’s Constitution. Ultimately, failure to recognize the Jesuit’s constitutional rights to live as a functional family could lead to a law suit which has excellent chances of being decided in their favor.

    /s/ Andrew L. Bemish, attorney-at-law

  16. By Jim Fink
    June 11, 2014 at 11:16 pm | permalink

    Re: David Cahill

    RLUIPA, not RILPUA. [link]

    Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The land use provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc, et seq., protect individuals, houses of worship, and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws (for information on RLUIPA’s institutionalized persons provisions, please refer to the Civil Rights Division’s Special Litigation Section ).

  17. June 12, 2014 at 8:09 pm | permalink

    Thanks, Jim!