Category: Land Seizure

MDOT files to take church for Gordie Howe Bridge project

John Gallagher/The Detroit Free Press – The State of Michigan has filed what appears to be the first lawsuit against a large property owner in southwest Detroit’s Delray district to acquire land for the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge.

The so-called condemnation lawsuit filed this week revealed that the Michigan Department of Transportation offered $411,000 to buy the First Latin American Baptist Church at 6205 W. Fort St. in a “good faith offer” on July 25.

Alan Ackerman, a Bloomfield Hills attorney representing the church, said the offer was too low because the church needs at least $2 million to relocate to a new site nearby and improve it to the same condition as its current location.

Since the church refused the MDOT offer, the State of Michigan filed suit this week to take the property. Under the state’s eminent domain law, the amount to be paid will now be determined in court.

“MDOT is working with the church to provide ample time for relocation prior to the state taking possession of the property,” said MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson in an e-mail. “MDOT will continue discussions with the church on acquisition issues in hopes of reaching agreement.”

The condemnation lawsuit marks the first of what is expected to potentially be a rash of such legal squabbles over how much MDOT must pay for land in Delray for the Gordie Howe Bridge and its approaches, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza, and connections to I-75.

State officials have said they need to purchase an estimated 673 parcels in Delray for the bridge project at a projected cost of about $370 million. Good faith offers have already been made to a majority of the property owners, many of whom own small residential parcels.

But one of the biggest battles may still lie ahead. The state needs to acquire some portion of a 42-acre trucking terminal at 7701 W. Jefferson that is owned by Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and his family. Moroun’s son, Matthew, said recently the company would fight any attempt by MDOT to take its property for the Gordie Howe Bridge that will compete with the family’s Ambassador Bridge.

The Gordie Howe International Bridge remains in planning stages. Canadian authorities in charge of the massive project estimate it will open to traffic in late 2020. But delays in moving forward may push that completion date out beyond that.

Morouns aren’t done trying to block Gordie Howe bridge

John Gallagher/The Detroit Free Press – The Moroun family that owns the Ambassador Bridge could soon launch a few legal Hail Marys to try to block or delay the rival Gordie Howe International Bridge — including possibly arguing that the Michigan Constitution prohibits using eminent domain to seize private property for a Canada-led project.

The Moroun family business,  which owns land in the path of the new bridge in the Delray neighborhood,  has multiple legal strategies it could present. It could argue broadly about problems with eminent domain or try to delay MDOT’s seizure of the family’s Delray land, where they run a trucking operation.

John Mogk, longtime professor of development law at Wayne State University, said that under Article X, Section 2  of the Michigan Constitution, Michigan governments can take land under eminent domain for a “public use.” Transferring private property to the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, an entity set up by Canada’s government to manage the bridge project, arguably might not fit the definition of a Michigan public use, he said.

“This is a stretch. I’m not saying if I were on the bench I’d agree with this,” Mogk said, explaining that it was just one potential argument the Morouns might raise. MDOT, he said, could counter that the bridge will be half owned by Michigan and therefore the project fits the definition of a public use.

Matthew Moroun, son of family patriarch Manuel (Matty) Moroun, said this week his family’s bridge company would continue to fight the Gordie Howe Bridge, though he declined to reveal any specific legal strategies.

“We never intended to give up our property without a fight,” he told the Free Press this week. “If they throw a punch we’re going to hold up our hands and defend ourselves.”

For example, the Morouns might contend that moving the trucking operation the family owns in the Delray neighborhood that sits in the path of the planned bridge would be so costly that it would take far longer than currently estimated by the state, ensuring more delays.

Every day the rival bridge is delayed means more business for the Ambassador, which is the only above-ground crossing between Windsor and Detroit. The tunnel under the Detroit River is not suited for truck traffic, so quite often the Ambassador is the only game in town for international truckers and cargo.

Truck terminal

The Morouns, who have fought the Gordie Howe project for many years with lawsuits in the U.S. and Canada, intend to go on battling.

Protecting their land in Delray against seizure by MDOT could be the latest strategy.

On that land, the Moroun family’s Central Transport operates a truck terminal on the 42-acre site at 7701 W. Jefferson. The approaches to the planned bridge must cross their land on the way to the U.S. Customs and Border Inspection plaza to the north. It took years for a bi-national study group to select the route and moving the planned bridge now could add years to the project.

On any given day, dozens of the company’s yellow Central Transport truck trailers are lined up at truck bays at the terminal, transferring shipments for customers such as Walmart. Uprooting that operation, if that is what MDOT determines is needed, would involved paying not only for buying the land but transferring the operation to a suitable new location.

The showdown over the terminal has been expected since 2010, when the Morouns purchased the site from another trucking concern and moved their operations there from Romulus. There has been open speculation ever since that the Morouns were placing their operation intentionally in the path of the future bridge project.

Public use or economic development?

Mogk said another potential Moroun argument might run like this: the Gordie Howe bridge project is less a public use than an economic development project, since planners tout the thousands of construction jobs and increased efficiency of cross-border trade.

That might prove a crucial distinction because a 2004 Michigan Supreme Court ruling known as Wayne County v. Hathcock bars governments in Michigan from taking land from one private owner and transferring it to another private owner just to stimulate economic growth.

Mogk said these were just possible lines of arguments. “The arguments are a bit stretched,” he said. “I’m not sure that they will prevail.”

But that may not be all. Alan Ackerman, a Bloomfield Hills-based attorney who represents property owners whose land is being taken by governments under eminent domain, cited a third possibility. The fate of a little-known industrial railroad line running alongside the Moroun truck terminal might create a legal roadblock.

The Delray Connecting Railroad Co. is operated by U.S. Steel to service its steel plant on nearby Zug Island.

MDOT cannot simply seize the land on which the railroad runs, Ackerman said, since railroads are regulated by the federal government, not state governments. If MDOT needs that land — and it’s not immediately clear that it does — it would have to petition the federal Surface Transportation Board to vacate the line first.

It’s also likely that various federal departments and agencies, including Homeland Security, would have to give permission for the railroad to continue to operate beneath the Gordie Howe Bridge. But when or if that decision might be made is not known.

Whatever legal arguments the Morouns offer, even if defeated in court as it has been in its other lawsuits, the family could profit by delaying the bridge project. Each year’s delay in opening the Gordie Howe Bridge means tens of millions of dollars in toll revenue for the Morouns’ Ambassador Bridge.

Andy Doctoroff, Gov. Rick Snyder’s point man for the Gordie Howe project, said late last week that MDOT, working with Canadian officials, believes that all the land needed for the project will be available in a timely fashion to not delay construction.

This week, MDOT released a brief statement declining to comment on the Morouns’ possible legal arguments.

“Legal disagreements are best discussed in court and not in media stories,” the statement said. “The State of Michigan is confident in its approach to this project, however, and will gladly explain that in court when appropriate.”

MDOT-Moroun showdown looms over land needed for bridge

John Gallagher/The Detroit Free Press – A potential showdown could flare soon between Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun and the State of Michigan over land in southwest Detroit needed for the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Should Moroun resist selling land he owns for the rival bridge, the Michigan Department of Transportation could go to court and take it under eminent-domain power.

A lengthy court fight would likely ensue over the final price, a fight that could stretch for years. But that wouldn’t prevent the state from seizing the land in the meantime and starting construction. Under state law, MDOT can take land for public projects and battle later in court over the price.

Canadian officials in charge of the Gordie Howe bridge say it could be ready by the end of 2020. But recent delays call that into question, including what appears to many as the slower pace of land acquisition on the Detroit side.

Dwight Duncan, the Canadian official who serves as interim chair of the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority, recently blamed “30 problematic properties” in southwest Detroit for holding up the project.

That includes land owned by Moroun, a vociferous opponent of the new bridge because it will draw business away from his privately owned Ambassador Bridge.

Moroun owns the former Yellow Freight truck yard, a 42-acre site at 7701 W. Jefferson that is in the path of the Gordie Howe bridge project. The ramps to and from the bridge would cross directly over a portion of Moroun’s property there.

Moroun can’t delay indefinitely through legal maneuvers, though he could probably make things complicated for awhile.

A spokesman for Moroun said there has been no activity yet involving the land in southwest Detroit.

Alan Ackerman, a longtime attorney who represents property owners facing eminent domain actions, represents several owners in Delray, but not Moroun. He estimates that it takes about 18 months to settle eminent-domain cases. But it can take as little as eight months or as long as five years.

Taking residential properties is easier than commercial because some businesses have to find a new place to operate, he said.

The residential properties also are easier to take because many Delray residents already have said they would be happy to take the government’s offer to buy them out.

Preliminary progress

Andy Doctoroff, Gov. Rick Snyder’s point man on the bridge, said significant preliminary work has been under way for some time, and that good-faith offers have already been made to a majority of the estimated 673 parcels in the Delray neighborhood needed for the project. The state estimates it will cost about $370 million to buy all the land for the Detroit bridge approaches, U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection plaza, and connections to I-75.

And all other appraisals on all involved parcels are either completed or under way, a necessary step before the state can make purchase offers to property owners, Doctoroff said.

“Within the near term, all good-faith offers will have been made,” Doctoroff said last week, predicting “within the next few months.”

In carefully worded language, Doctoroff predicted that Detroit land acquisition likely won’t be an impediment because construction happens in stages.

Construction proposals coming soon

On the Windsor side of the river, Duncan has issued similar assurances that the project, while taking longer than expected to launch, should soon see significant progress.

Duncan said the request for proposals that will go out soon to three teams vying to build the bridge. Delays in issuing the RFP, which initially was promised late last year, has led to speculation about reasons for the delay.

Officials on both sides blame the complexity of the project, which costs more than $2 billion and involves governments in two nations with different sets of laws.

But officials say the seeming delays mask real progress that has been made.

“Our land acquisition team at MDOT is committed, sophisticated, it’s robust, and it’s spending a lot of time serving the interests of the project because this is a benefit to the entire region in a major way,” Doctoroff said. “There are a lot of people doing a lot of great work on land acquisition.”

No doubt fans of the project will continue to fret and worry until they see construction rising against the skyline. That will take at least another couple of years, though, so until then, or until Canada issues the RFP and MDOT moves publicly to take all the land it needs in Delray, conspiracy theorists will continue to suggest that all is not well.

Politics & Prejudices: Why aren’t they building the new bridge?

Jack Lessenberry/Detroit Metro Times – By this time, earth-moving equipment should be crawling over all the approaches leading to where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is to rise.

Crews should be working to relocate utility lines as needed. Workers should be signing up for jobs — thousands of good-paying, construction jobs that will last for years.

More than four years ago, in what likely is the best thing he ever will have done as governor, Rick Snyder figured out a way to get around a legislature owned by Matty Moroun, the billionaire who owns the rickety Ambassador Bridge.

Every business interest in both Michigan and Ontario has known for years that a new bridge is essential. This is the two nations’ economically most important border crossing.

Billions in trade, mainly heavy manufacturing components, moves across the old bridge every week. This is stuff that can’t go through the tunnel. There is no backup system; if this bridge fails, it would be devastating to our economy. The structure may indeed be literally falling apart; it sent a shower of concrete into Windsor streets last fall.

On top of that, the Ambassador Bridge is in a lousy place for a major economic trade route. There are more than a dozen traffic lights between the end of the bridge and Highway 401, Canada’s most important freeway. Moroun’s contention that he should be allowed to build a second bridge next to his old one makes no sense logistically or environmentally.

The last thing the people who live in the wretched neighborhoods near the Ambassador need is to breathe more diesel exhaust and suffer through more noise pollution.

The new bridge has now won every approval necessary — presidential, parliamentary, environmental.

Enraged at first that someone was actually trying to make him play fair, Matty Moroun filed federal lawsuit after federal lawsuit attempting to block the new bridge from being built.

The only winners were the lawyers who billed him by the hour. He lost every count on every case. Meanwhile, the Canadians have built a system of beautiful access roads that will swiftly convey traffic from the Gordie Howe directly to 401.

The area is artfully landscaped, and partly concealed barriers are in place to shield residents from noise pollution.

But on this side of the border, nothing — except a little preliminary work at the site of what is to be the future U.S. customs plaza. Two weeks ago, Gregg Ward, the co-owner of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, took me on a tour of the entire bridge area on both sides of the border. The contrast was huge.

Afterward, over lunch, he sighed. “I’m worried that it is being deliberately stalled,” he said of the bridge.

He’s not alone. Brian Masse, the member of Canada’s parliament who represents Windsor, is suspicious as to whether the new Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau is as committed to the bridge as the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was before he was defeated last fall.

Masse, who as a New Democrat is a member of neither party, has accused the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority of “losing focus,” and was alarmed that Dwight Duncan, the interim head of the authority, has expressed interest in perhaps trying to buy the Ambassador Bridge, which he accurately described as an “aging, crumbling piece of infrastructure.”

(Earlier discussions about buying the bridge collapsed when Moroun insisted on an unreasonable price. Apparently, Canada would buy it not to avoid building a new bridge, but to put an end to Moroun’s interference.)

Ward’s suspicions as to why things are stalled center around Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has been playing footsie for many months with Matty Moroun, who the mayor has made a controversial deal with over Riverside Park.

“Every year this project is delayed means more millions for Moroun,” said Ward. He wonders why the mayor hasn’t signed off to transfer jurisdiction over roads and easements in the area to the bridge authority, so they could begin requiring utilities to relocate lines, etc. as needed for the bridge.

When asked about all this, the Duggan administration’s response was less than reassuring. After two days, I received a response from Jed Howbert, the executive director of the Jobs & Economic Team. “We continue to support the Gordie Howe bridge, and are committed to ensuring the needs of those who live in the community are addressed.”

That raises the question of community benefits, often a sore point when it comes to development in the city.

There’s little question that those who live near developments in Detroit have often been given short shrift when it came to how they were treated. Two different community benefits ordinances will be on the Detroit ballot this year.

Indeed, Ward told me, MDOT, the Michigan Department of Transportation, seems to have no intention of erecting the sort of noise barriers Canada has to shield the mostly poor people on the U.S. side who will be living within the shadow and the “noise footprint” of the Gordie Howe bridge.

Alan Ackerman is an attorney who represents most of the business owners in the bridge area. He is sympathetic to community benefits — but says “Duggan came a little late to the party, after Coleman Young and Kwame gave so much away.”

His clients, most of whom were struggling to begin with, are not benefiting from the delay. “I’ve never seen anything like the power of Matty Moroun. He gets anything he wants,” said Ackerman, who has been practicing law in the city for 44 years.

Canada recently began to back away from the previous insistence that the bridge would be finished and open by 2020.

Ackerman’s guess is that it will be 2023 — and that it won’t happen until all parties conclude an agreement with Moroun.

The biggest reason for the delay is that the Detroit-Windsor Bridge Authority still has to acquire many parcels of land, 30 or so of which are owned by — yep — Matty Moroun.

Ackerman is perhaps the area’s foremost expert on eminent domain; he won the Michigan Supreme Court’s historic “Poletown” ruling in 2004 that made it harder for economic development organizations to take homeowners’ land.

Here, he thinks eminent domain could be used if needed in the case of the Moroun properties, but that things could be dragged out indefinitely unless a deal is reached with the state’s greediest and most obnoxious billionaire.

Driving through New Jersey, he told me “You’ll know it will happen when one day you hear that they’ve made a deal with Moroun.” Hundreds of miles away, sitting at Johnny Noodle King, a short drive from his docks, Ward also agrees.

The new bridge will happen; it’s too economically important to the region. As a human being, Ward is sort of the anti-Moroun. Looked at one way, he should be against any new bridge. His truck ferry exists because the rickety Ambassador isn’t safe for trucks carrying hazardous materials.

The new bridge will be, and will put Ward, the 56-year-old single father of an autistic son, out of business.

Yet a new bridge is essential if we are to have a future. One thing working in its favor is biology.

Ward doesn’t say so, but he knows in a few years, the 89-year-old Moroun will be dead.

Yet he also can look back at years of failed and thwarted attempts and delays, and a region sold out time and again.

“I worry,” Ward said.

We all should.

What CEOs need to know and how they should respond when faced with a land seizure?

With infrastructure upgrades and improvements likely to remain a legislative priority and a practical necessity for years to come, eminent domain proceedings will continue to emerge as a prominent issue that business owners will be forced to confront. Unavoidable conflicts of interest are often the result, as competing priorities of the private companies and government agencies that initiate these actions and the private property/business owners impacted by the proposed seizure come to a head.

A partial taking, the seizure of one segment of an existing property or business operation, is the most common form of eminent domain. Typically intended to widen roads or make critical infrastructure upgrades, such an action can have a significant (and often under appreciated) impact on the value of a piece of property and, subsequently, on the bottom line of a business. Calculating the potential business effect of a seizure requires accurate accounting of all the functional and financial implications, many of which may not be immediately obvious. From the perspective of CEOs and other C-level executives, that calculation is further complicated by the costs and complications of engaging in complex—and potentially very public—litigation.

Because of the unique challenges and significant liabilities that can arise from the seizure of even a small piece of property, CEOs and business owners need to understand what to do (and what not to do) in the event that they are faced with this increasingly common phenomenon.

Impact & Implications

The reality is that, while nothing is ever certain in politics, there is good reason to believe that the current government commitment to spend more money on energy and infrastructure-related improvements will continue the eminent domain momentum. Outdated infrastructure and the pressing need for energy grid upgrades, new rapid transit systems, and energy and mineral rights are driving the trend.

From a business owner/operator perspective, the first step is to appreciate the gravity of the situation. From zoning issues and operational efficiencies to visibility, access and public perception, the ways in which the forfeiture of one piece of property can have an outsized effect on the rest of the business are numerous. As a result, the gap between what the government offers and what constitutes fair compensation can be startlingly wide. The public record is full of eye-opening cases where the final judgment far exceeded the initial offer. One public company was offered $3 million for a piece of property based on an outdated land valuation, and the case was ultimately settled for $29 million. Another $345,000 offer became a $7 million judgment once issues of contiguous use and loss of favorable environmental and zoning regulations were submitted into evidence and factored into the value equation.

The bottom line is that the government, despite best efforts, does not always have a full understanding of what the implications of a seizure might be to your business. From industry to industry and site to site, the sophisticated subtleties of how a seizure could affect the operational and financial potential of a business can vary considerably. Protecting your business demands that CEOs understand those nuances, appreciate the stakes and know how to respond when faced with a partial taking claim.

Eminent Domain & Publicly Traded Companies

For CEOs—especially CEOs of public companies—knowing precisely what steps to take in the event that your property and business face a land seizure is critical.Handling litigation is always a complex proposition for publicly traded corporations. The special requirements and obligations of publicly traded companies (which do not apply to privately held enterprises) force CEOs to confront a difficult balancing act: diligently notifying the public of the eminent domain litigation and reassuring shareholders without “telegraphing” a desire to properly protect proprietary information. When faced with a land seizure, CEOs can limit confusion and ambiguity, optimizing their chances of receiving full and fair compensation, by following these guidelines:

Understand what not to do

Upon receipt of formal notification of a proposed taking, an experienced appraiser will evaluate the property and submit an initial offer.In the event that an agreement cannot be reached and the condemning authority files a complaint to seize, what not to do becomes critically important. Do not discuss compensation issues or property values with anyone other than your attorney; do not submit an application for any new permits, variances, or other zoning or ordinance changes; do not say or do anything on the record without the approval and review of your attorney; and, do not submit proprietary documentation or allow any testing/sample taking without strict confidentiality agreements.

Confirm public use

When a condemning agency comes to acquire company property, the first thing that entity should do is determine whether the new use for the land falls under the Public Use Provision of the Constitution. If not a public use, an owner may properly defend against an acquisition.

Retain experienced counsel

It is crucial that decision-makers retain the counsel of an experienced eminent domain attorney before responding to the compensation offer. Your attorney will help you hire an appraiser who understands the ins and outs of your property, your business and your industry. The next step is to determine whether the action should be handled in-house or delegated out to private law firms. Frequently, one will find the research and preparation of the attorney as privileged, while information obtained in the corporate investigation may not be protected. An outside counsel may be of assistance in assembling information and preparing the claim. Some publicly held corporations control so many properties that the company may determine that it is in its own best interest to obtain full-time in-house representation. The difficulty with this is that the volume of eminent domain litigation can vary greatly from year to year, leaving an expensively trained employee without enough work for the specialized activity. General in-house counsel, however, is unlikely to have sufficient experience in the procedural and courtroom complexities inherent in eminent domain action.

Establish a clear delegation of authority

Whether it is the general counsel or some other official, assign one designated individual to handle all formal communications and appropriately respond to the legal challenges. This is especially important in eminent domain proceedings where a publicly held corporation is far more visible than a privately held entity.

Calculate the costs

If the acquisition is inevitable, corporations can only seek to obtain full and fair compensation for all their losses. While property owners usually receive relocation assistance and payment for a property which is totally taken, the dispute in partial takings is often extremely complex, and determining just compensation becomes much more difficult. Future earning potential, inventory and the like must be taken into consideration.

Proceed with caution

When the company learns that property is to be condemned, the Chief Executive or the designated agent should be very careful with what is disclosed to any third party.The property should be maintained and not allowed to deteriorate while awaiting the eminent domain proceeding, as the “looks” of the property will invariably affect the valuation of the property.
Do not apply for property tax re-assessments, as claims of low value on property taxes will be utilized against the property owner in a condemnation proceeding. Do not apply for rezoning or other permits without first consulting experienced counsel.Have counsel, rather than the property owner,hire an appraiser to appropriately value the just compensation.

Choose your words carefully

Finally, remember that anything the Chief Executive or agent states may be held against the company. The company should be careful in not communicating anything that is not in response to specifically requested information. A formal written reply to a written question, with time to provide a response,provides the company with the best opportunity to fully represent and comprehend the issues in the valuation process.

Partial takings and eminent domain occupy a highly specialized legal/regulatory niche. Just compensation for loss of business and/or financial hardship has to be carefully explained within very specific legal standards. As a result, it can be difficult to get paid for your business losses. With all the complexities of running a company and protecting the interests of employees (and, in some cases, shareholders), CEOs are up against challenging circumstances when eminent domain issues arise. Inexperience can create a costly and irreversible liability. Understanding what to do before those costs take their toll can literally be a multi-million-dollar difference maker.

View this article on CEOWORLD Magazine.

Only 2 Cases Remain in More Than Dozen Filed Over New Bridge to Canada

Chad Halcom/Crain’s Detroit Business — A long trawl of litigation may be nearly over for Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun and the Detroit International Bridge Co., while the courts’ attention drifts downriver soon, to the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Of the dozen-plus lawsuits to crop up since 2009 involving Moroun, his bridge company, various government agencies and neighboring landowners, only two cases are still pending — and U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer dismissed most of one last week.

An appeal in the same lawsuit, still awaits oral arguments Oct. 19 at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., and another 2013 lawsuit in Washington is still pending.

“This guy (Moroun) never gives up,” said Richard McLellan, owner of McLellan Law Offices PLLC in Lansing, who had consulted on a previous version of the international bridge agreement that floundered in the state Legislature a few years ago. “I think he definitely has the potential to create new law in this case. It’s just not necessarily to his advantage.”

Timothy Mullins, chairman of the government law section at Giarmarco, Mullins & Horton PC in Troy, also noted the bridge company was persistent but unlikely to prevail in the Washington court case. But then, having the stronger legal argument may not be the point.

“The company has spent an awful lot of money to delay the public bridge process,” he said. “But if you took the amount of money he’s spent (in court) and compare it with the amount the bridge makes, then probably every year he can delay things it’s still a profitable venture.”

The Ambassador Bridge is widely believed to have generated around $60 million in annual revenue in recent years. The DIBC has said a government bridge could siphon as much as 70 percent of its traffic, although a traffic study from public bridge supporters estimates it would take 31.1 percent of Ambassador’s commercial truck traffic and 12 percent of auto traffic by 2035.

The bridge has historically accounted for more than one-quarter of all commercial traffic between the U.S. and Canada. Moroun, a trucking industrialist who bought the Ambassador in 1979, has been in litigation through the bridge company for years over both the public span project and his own proposed private second span to be built alongside the Ambassador.

But even as that litigation winds down, Wayne County Circuit Court may be about to hear dozens of eminent domain suits from state Transportation officials against property owners in Detroit’s industrial Delray neighborhood, where the Gordie Howe bridge is expected to land.

Chief Circuit Judge Robert Colombo issued a “docket directive” last month, ordering any lawsuits MDOT expects to file condemning property for bridge purposes to be initially assigned to him.

The cases will then be randomly reassigned to various civil court judges after Colombo handles preliminary matters, like transfer of title and challenges to the necessity of taking land — a protocol that suggests the court expects a fairly large MDOT case volume shortly.

“There was a time we were told the bridge authority didn’t want to file in court and could work this out on their own,” said Alan Ackerman, managing partner of Bloomfield Hills-based Ackerman, Ackerman & Dynkowski PC and attorney for more than 15 property owners near the proposed crossing site.

“But I don’t think they have interest in doing anything else but going to court, at this point.”

Collyer dismissed seven out of nine counts in a 2010 Detroit International Bridge lawsuit against the U.S. State Department, U.S. Coast Guard, Federal Highway Administration, the government of Canada and several federal cabinet members and department heads, in a ruling that said the bridge company was overstating its claims under a 1921 franchise agreement authorizing the bridge.

An eighth claim, stemming from allegations the Coast Guard held up a requested permit for a second bridge span alongside Ambassador for over a decade, was dismissed earlier but is under review at the appeals court in Washington.

The bridge company claims the Coast Guard’s permit actions have served as a delay tactic, while Michigan and Canada prepare to open the public Howe bridge about two miles away by 2020. Mickey Blashfield, director of government relations for the bridge company, declined to comment on any of the litigation last week.

Only one claim, that the State Department entered an international crossing agreement without congressional action and that Michigan entered it without legislative action, is going forward.

Robert Sedler, a professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University Law School and part of the Moroun bridge company’s legal team in the Washington court case, crafted the legal argument for that surviving court claim. He said last week that Gov. Rick Snyder essentially lacked authority to unilaterally enter a bridge crossing deal with Canada.

That argument could get some traction, some observers said. “None of the arguments that got dismissed (by Collyer) made any sense. The one that didn’t get dismissed makes some sense, but it’s not a showstopper,” Ackerman said of the Sedler argument. “It’s probably a stretch to think he (Moroun) will win it, but it comes close.”

The Coast Guard has rejected the bridge company’s permit application in part because Moroun had not yet obtained all the land on either side of the river necessary to build the second span — a feat that Moroun’s attorneys contend isn’t required for permit purposes.

Mullins said governments can be limited by their contract agreements, like the kind that a predecessor company to Moroun’s first reached to authorize a toll bridge crossing over 80 years ago. But it was unrealistic of Moroun’s legal team to expect its own agreement was enough to constrain both governments from developing another bridge.

He also said the Coast Guard is likely to prevail on the permit dispute as well.

“It’s an argument, and he (Moroun) is welcome to make it,” he said.

McLellan contends the Michigan constitution, in Article 3, specifically authorizes the state to “enter into agreements…(to carry out) their respective functions” with the government of Canada, a power the state has invoked on several other occasions as well as in the bridge deal last year.

But Sedler counters that provision is “subject to provisions of general law,” or statutes enacted by the Legislature.

To view the article, visit Crain’s Detroit Business.