Interview with Dave Sanger, Peninsula Township Code Enforcement Officer
Dave Sanger, Peninsula Township Code Enforcement Officer | Jane Boursaw Photo
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Thinking about building a shed? Got a sign you want to put by the road? Renting a room? You might want to check with Dave Sanger, the Peninsula Township Code Enforcement Officer. Dave not only knows the township ordinance backwards and forwards, but his skillset makes him the perfect person for the job.

In addition to previously serving on the Peninsula Township Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, Dave currently sits on the Township Board. He also has a long history in law enforcement, stretching back decades and including stints in three police academies – in Los Angeles, Michigan’s Oakland County, and Grand Traverse County – culminating in 40 years as a reserve police officer.

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And let’s throw in a degree in engineering, a long career at Ford Motor Company, and running his own computer company, just to make it interesting.

Interview with Dave Sanger, Peninsula Township Code Enforcement Officer
Dave Sanger, Peninsula Township Code Enforcement Officer | Jane Boursaw Photo

In fact, Dave continues to serve as a reserve police officer with the Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Department. “What I’ve learned over all my years of working with full-time police officers is that you have to know what the law is and you have to know how to enforce the law,” he says. “But it’s not all red lights, sirens, putting people in handcuffs and sending them to jail.”

Dave became interested in emergency services when he was a kid growing up in Chicago. “I lived close to a volunteer fire department, so I hung around there as a teenager. I was active in boy scouting and explorer scouting, but I was always interested in emergency services.”

When he moved to Los Angeles, he and a friend signed up for a mountain rescue team, but the job didn’t quite work out time-wise with his regular job. That’s when he learned about the police officer reserve program, which has followed him throughout his life.

He notes that there are more reserve police officers in Michigan than there are sworn full-time officers, a fact that harks back to the civil defense era after WWII, when many people got involved in public service.

“Today, it’s both a public service commitment, and for a lot of younger men and women, it’s a good way to find out, is this a career that I want to go into? It’s very common for a department to pull people out of their reserve program when they’re hiring full time.”

Read on for my interview with Dave, who covers everything from Peninsula Township’s sign ordinance to short-term rentals to his job enforcing the Peninsula Township Zoning Ordinance.

De-Coding the Sign Ordinance

Jane: What do you see the most of in terms of ordinance violations in Peninsula Township?

Dave: About 85 percent has to do with signs. The only signs allowed within the road right-of-way are traffic control signs or special road signs. The right-of-way for most roads in Peninsula Township – county roads – is 66 feet (33 feet each way from the road center line). For state roads (such as Center Road), the right-of-way is 100 feet (50 feet each way from the center line). Because it’s most common in the township for the property description to go to the center of the road, that means that you may own that property, but you have given the county or state an easement to use it as a road.

Jane: Can you put anything in that right-of-way?

Dave: The county and state let you put up a mailbox, and you have a right to put a driveway in with a permit. Those are the only exclusions.

Jane: I think most people probably don’t realize that you can’t put a sign in that right-of-way. You see garage sale signs in that area all the time.

Dave: Right, we have people thinking, well, gee, I’ve got grass growing right up to a little bit of gravel here and then there’s the black top of the shoulder, so I have a right to put my sign next to the black top. But I have been asked by both the (Grand Traverse County) Road Commission and MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) to please enforce our township sign ordinance.

Jane: Do other townships have that sign ordinance?

Dave: Take a drive over to Acme Township or go down to Blair Township. You’ll see lots of directional real estate signs with arrows. In Garfield Township, there will be six directional signs for one house. We’re one of the few townships that does not allow directional real estate signs. In our ordinance, a sign that’s on the property must pertain to that property. So that means you cannot put a sign at your house about something going on at my house, whether it’s for sale or a party or whatever.

Jane: What other types of signs do you find in Peninsula Township?

Dave: Right now, I have several violations where people are putting out those signs, the ones with the little green men that say, “Drive like your kids live here.” People mean well, because they’re trying to slow traffic down, but they don’t have a right to put that in the right-of-way.

Jane: Why is the sign ordinance so important? I hear a lot about it in my interactions with the community.

Dave: It’s a safety issue. The attempt is to make that highway open so it’s available in case someone needs to get off the road or is involved in an accident.

What About Trees? 

Jane: Can you plant trees in the road right-of-way? Can you have an orchard in that area?

Dave: You can plant a tree, but the county has a right to cut the tree down (as we learned during the Bluff Road work a few years ago). We’ve also seen people with elaborate mailboxes, or mailboxes made out of boulders … they’re beautiful, but again, that right-of-way is part of the safety zone for motorists.

Jane: What signs do you see the most in Peninsula Township?

Dave: Stump grinding, tree cutting, lawn service, construction signs, painting … we do allow construction signs, but only while the construction is going on. And it has to be on your property, and not in the right-of-way. So, ABC Builders can have one sign during construction, six square feet in area, four feet high, no setback and no light.

Jane: And people should know that the zoning ordinance is intended to work in conjunction with Peninsula Township’s Master Plan…

Dave: Yes, so when we talk about directional real estate signs, for example, we can find something in the master plan that says, “The beauty of the township is going to be perpetuated by a lack of signs,” and that kind of thing. The zoning ordinance also deals with uses, what you can do with your property. So when you own a piece of property, there are things you can do with that property by right, called “use by right.”

When Do You Need a Special Use Permit? 

Jane: But there are avenues to do other things, too…

Dave: Yes, there are things you can only do on that property with township approval. That’s called a special use permit (SUP). Typically, the special use permits are required when the activity is going to be impacting, to a greater extent, the neighborhood. For example, any commercial building or operation in the township – we have commercial zones, as you know – requires a special use permit. When St. Joseph Catholic Church was moved and added onto, that was under a special use permit.

Jane: And the wineries…

Dave: The wineries are under special use permits.

Jane: As far as the sign violations, you *could write tickets for all of those, right?

Dave: It would be easy to write 300 tickets, just like a police officer stopping cars and writing tickets all day long. A certain percentage will pay them, a certain percentage will go to court. But the Township Board made it clear that they want me to look upon my job as communication and education. If someone wants to be tough about it and if they really want to fight, then we have the tools to go to the magistrate. So, the main job that I have is to contact these people. If the violation is really egregious, or if I believe a sign is really a safety hazard, I’ll pull the sign. We dump them in the back here (of the Township offices). You’ve probably seen the pile back there. We’ve had contractors come in and be upset about it. One guy was mad because we took his painting sign, but again, he had it on the gravel side of the road. We also have (violation) stickers that we put on the signs, but we try to avoid that as much as we can. What I do is contact the owner, stop by the house, talk to the people, and they’ll say, “Oh I didn’t know about that.”

Jane: What about signs that fall under the free speech category? Can people speak their mind on a sign?

Dave: If you put up a sign saying something like, “God is good,” and it’s not in the right of way, it’s going to be a tough one for the township to prosecute. I’ve had the “No Oil in the Straits,” but they’re outside the right-of-way. Another one that’s become popular is the friendship sign with a few different languages. I’ll stop and say, “You’re welcome to express your thoughts, but they can’t be in the right-of-way.”

About Those Campaign Signs

Jane: What about campaign signs? Election time is right around the corner.

Dave: When we get into election time, the (Grand Traverse) County Road Commission and MDOT have a set of regulations that the candidates are given. They can only have their signs up so many days before the election, and they have to be so far off the traveled surface. They can be in the right-of-way, but only during that time. It’s typically 60 days.

Jane: What other types of ordinance violations do you deal with?

Dave: The ordinance has to do with signs, fences, setbacks, the height of buildings, how much of the property can be covered by a structure … you know this from your zoning work (I took minutes for township meetings back in the last century).

Talking Short-Term Rentals

Jane: I feel like people may be violating the ordinance all over the place and not even know it. What about short-term rentals? How do you enforce that violation?

Dave: We’ve shut down two short-term rental homes in the township. We had a home being used to rent out rooms by the night. You could find out about it on AirBnB and be told there is a lockbox on the front door and here’s the code. Unless you rent the whole house, there would be somebody else in the house with you, and there’s a lock on your bedroom door. So that was very disturbing to the neighbors. In that neighborhood, the homes have a 15-foot setback, so we have activity going on within 30 feet of these neighbors. The noise, the commotion, the time of day, the parking … all the problems created by that short-term rental. I got involved and went by the house and took down cars and license plates. You have to establish, number one, it’s on AirBnB, so it’s being advertised. And you have to establish that the people are not there for 30 days, and also establish that it’s a revolving door. The ordinance requires that we give 15 days’ notice in the enforcement – except for signs that are in the right-of-way – those I can pick up immediately.

Jane: So, you tell the property owners that their short-term rental is in violation of the ordinance, and they have 15 days to comply.

Dave: Yes, so when you ask, how tough can we get? With the case of the short-term rental, she fought it. She said, first of all, I’m living there. Our short-term rental ordinance requires that it be non-owner occupied. So we said, “That’s fine, then you’re running a B & B operation. Where’s your special use permit?” So, we, as a township, with our attorney, settled with her attorney. We met once – she had asked for a formal hearing before the judge, because you have a right to request a formal hearing before the district judge. I thought we had a solid case. So the property owner agreed to a stipulated order, she violated the order, and she goes before the judge.

Jane: So you took that one to the magistrate and shut it down…

Dave: Yes. We closed another one down over on Neahtawanta that, again, was a case where we had non-resident owners in a very high-rent district. The homes are 30 feet apart, and neighbors had been putting up with new people coming in basically every Saturday. What happens, Jane, is that it may be three bedrooms, but they’ll advertise it as being able to handle a dozen people, because you’ve got people on fold-out beds… And they bring all their water toys, because they’re here on vacation. So that one, the owner paid the citation and stopped.

Jane: How much is the citation?

Dave: $225.

Jane: Do you keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t go back to doing what they were doing?

Dave: Yes. I have a log of where I go, and my reports are on the consent agenda for the Township Board meetings (meeting agendas, minutes and packets are found on the township website here). I spend part of the time in my car going out observing.

Jane: I was just going to ask how you learn about the violations.

Land Use Permits and When To Get One

Dave: Another thing I’m looking out for is land use permits. Christina (Deeren, Peninsula Township Director of Zoning) issues the land use permits when construction is taking place. Like when I saw you that day (on the south end of Bluff Road) – they had a land use permit, but you and I both know that building was too close to the road. I said something’s wrong here, so I got out my tape measure and measured it, and sure enough, Christina did not authorize that building where they put it.

Jane: How much in violation was that particular building?

Dave: Fifteen feet. So they cut it off. And I understand, with the experience I’ve had, that was costly to that property owner. What happens, Jane, these construction people will either tell the property owner, “You’ll need a permit,” or “Everything’s fine,” or “I’m taking care of it.”

Notice regarding a land use permit violation in Peninsula Township
Notice regarding a land use permit violation in Peninsula Township | Jane Boursaw Photo

Jane: The property owners trust their builders to know the building codes and the zoning ordinance.

Dave: But they don’t (know the ordinance). One case had to do with a lawn maintenance company building a patio on the beach. I stopped and asked if they had a land use permit. “No, we don’t need one. We’re just putting in concrete pads here.” I said, “Do you know where the ordinary high watermark is? Do you know you have to be so many feet away from the ordinary high watermark? Do you know you have to have a certain setback? And here’s an exception to the 15-day notice – if they don’t have a land use permit, Christina can come out and post a stop work order. So if we could get the message out to people that any construction they do, if they’re disturbing the soil more than 25 square feet, if they’re moving dirt around their property or building anything, call Christina and say, “Hey, I’m planning to do this, do I need a permit?”

Jane: Don’t trust the builders and landscape people to know the ordinance, is what you’re saying…

Dave: Right. But in all fairness to the builders, they know the (Grand Traverse County) building code, the construction code, very well. But the first level of approval is the township. That’s the land use permit. The second level of approval is the county. If you go to the county and ask to do something like build a house, they’ll say, “Let me see your land use permit.”

Jane: But there are lots of things that don’t require approval from the county…

Dave: Yes, you don’t have to go to the county for a lot of work. You can build a patio, you can do quite a bit of work on your property in terms of moving dirt with no building permit. But you have to have a land use permit. And they’re $75, so they’re cheap. It’s twice as much if you don’t get one and we catch you.

Jane: Or you might have to tear down your building and move it.

Dave: Yep.

Talking Beach Storage Sheds

Jane: What about storage sheds? And storage sheds on beaches?

Dave: That’s another problem. People don’t want to leave all their beach toys on the beach or walk across the road to their house. So they go to Menard’s and buy a little shed and put it up.

Jane: Not allowed?

Dave: Not allowed.

Jane: So probably just about every shed along the beach is in violation.

Dave: Yeah.

Jane: Are any of those grandfathered in? If they were built before the zoning ordinance was adopted in 1972?

Dave: Yes, and you can usually tell by looking at them. If they pre-date the ordinance, you can keep them.

Jane: Some of those along the south end of Bluff Road – they’re really like small houses – are right on the water.

Dave: Some of those structures, you couldn’t build today.

Jane: What about when you see people tear a building down to the foundation and say they’re “renovating” it – because it was conforming before the ordinance went into effect?

Dave: Yeah, that’s not so common here because it gets into what is called “the useful life of a structure.” A good example is the club house over at the Neahtawanta Association. I was there on a zoning board visit, and the question was, it’s in poor repair, so when does it reach the end of its natural life? Most ordinances say “economic life,” but our ordinance uses “natural life.” Which means it’s going to cost more to fix it than to rebuild it. When a building reaches the point where the bones are so bad that it’s shot. So, we analyzed that situation and felt that the foundation was sufficient.

Jane: Plus, that’s kind of a historical building. Another thing is that the water levels vary so much. It seems like people would not want their building or shed – even if it was built prior to when the ordinance took effect in 1972 – to be sitting in water. And most of those parcels are small. Too small by ordinance standards.

Dave: By and large, on Peninsula Drive, East Shore Road, Bluff Road … most of the buildings on the water side, the lots are too small. In most cases, the building envelope – the setback from the road, from the water, from the sides – there is none. All the setbacks overlap. As a township, we’re facing the issue of, how far do we let the people go? And on the zoning board, at one time, we felt if the minimum lot size is 20,000 square feet, and if this lot size is only 10,000 square feet, should they still be bound by the same setbacks?

Jane: What does the ordinance say?

Dave: It says yes, they should be bound by the same setbacks. They should not get any relief from the setbacks. It’s the same way on the 60-foot setback for the shed. The 60-foot setback would have to be from the ordinary high watermark, and the front yard setback is 30 feet. So, you have to have 90 feet of property between the right of way line and the high watermark. Most of the lots aren’t that deep.

Who Can Snoop Around On Your Property? 

Jane: You could probably spend most of your time just dealing with sheds along the beach. So how do you choose which violations to work on?

Dave: Well, you go for the obvious ones.

Jane: The ones you can see from the road?

Dave: Well, that gets into something else. The township enforcement does not allow us to go on your property and snoop around. The only person that can go on your property and snoop around is the assessor.

Jane: Another question on the short-term rentals … there’s one where the property owner swears it’s legal. But it’s not legal, is it? He’s advertising on AirBnB…

Dave: No, he isn’t legal. He’s operating a B&B without a special use permit.

Jane: Does he have all the requirements for a B&B?

Dave: No. Again, there are two elements to the short-term rentals I’ve seen. The first is the impact of this activity on the neighbor. You’re talking about cars coming and going, coming in as late as midnight, headlights, horns … you’re talking about more people in the home than you’d normally have with a neighbor who has, say, three kids. You have parking issues, noise issues, light issues, disturbance issues on the beach… And the second issue is comfort or assurance. If you stay at one of the B&Bs that’s covered in the ordinance, like Chateau Chantal or Cindy Ruzak’s place (Grey Hare Inn), before we gave them the permit, they had to show that they meet the safety codes and fire codes. Most of them with upstairs accommodations have to have a second stairway put in. They keep a log of visitors. They require designated parking. But one (a short-term rental that isn’t a sanctioned B&B) had just a driveway coming up to a two-car garage and the property owner got a spray can out and marked spaces No. 1 and No. 2. So, as I look at the short-term rentals, the township could have five of me go out and try to shut everybody down. But if people complain, we jump on it. Because that’s getting into conflicts between people living close together.

What the Ordinance Says About Short-Term Rentals

Jane: For the record, what does the ordinance say about short-term rentals? What is the required length of rental time?

Dave: If you don’t live there, you can rent your house out, but the rental period has to be 30 days or more. But when you rent your house out, you typically have a rental or lease contract, a background check, and you have them put down a deposit.

Jane: So, could someone rent out a room to a college student for a year?

Dave: You can, but it’s complicated. It has to do with how many unrelated people are living in the structure, and it depends on the zoning classification. The ordinance gets into the definition of family. It’s (reading the ordinance) “an individual or group of two or more people related by blood, marriage, or adoption, together with foster children and servants … with not more than one additional unrelated person who are domiciled together as a single domestic housekeeping unit in a dwelling unit.” So that means you could have a married couple, you could be related by blood – brother, sister, mother, daughter – and one more unrelated person. So, yeah, you could have a college student, but you couldn’t have two.

Jane: Again, we should all be checking the ordinance, because I can guarantee most residents of Peninsula Township probably don’t know all this.

Dave: Where the ordinance really starts to get messy is that a family back in the mid-80s also allowed for “a collective number of individuals domiciled together in one dwelling unit whose relationship is up for continuing non-transit domestic character … whose relationship is of a transitory or seasonal nature, or for an unanticipated limited duration, or school term…”

Jane: What about migrants? Is that what we’re talking about here?

Dave: That’s a whole different thing … that’s too complicated to even get into. Peninsula Township allows migrant housing, but it’s more complicated. I think after five people, you have to meet the state code requirements for migrant housing…

Jane: What about buildings with historical significance, like the Neahtawanta Clubhouse we talked about earlier? What are the requirements there?

Dave: They have to get federal designation. That’s what happened with the Bowers Harbor Inn (now Mission Table). They put a historical easement on the building. Again, the ordinance was adopted in 1972, so we’re really dealing with buildings that were in existence prior to June of 1972.

What About Abandoned Homes? 

Jane: What about abandoned buildings? I would think some of those would be a safety hazard.

Dave: We do have a dangerous buildings ordinance, and we have two homes in the township that are not livable. In one, they had issues of pipes breaking and water leakage, and it’s full of black mold. It hasn’t been lived in for several years, and it’s owned by the bank. It went through foreclosure. The front deck is missing, and it’s really a safety hazard. So, our dangerous building ordinance can be used when a structure is damaged by fire, wood, flood …

Peninsula Township Dangerous Buildings Ordinance
Notice at an abandoned home in Peninsula Township | Jane Boursaw Photo

Jane: Can you force someone to tear that down, and who would that be? The bank?

Dave: Yes, whoever the owner is. That’s a good point you raise. All of this discussion we’ve had, who is liable? It’s the property owner, not the construction guy, not the real estate agent … the citation from the township is going to go to whoever owns the property. Another one is the old Grange Hall (on Swaney Road). We’ve been back and forth on whether that should be torn down or not. I hope you get the feeling that a lot of my job is…

Jane: Safety issues…

Dave: Safety issues … When you look at the ordinance, why do we have this ordinance? A lot of it is safety. And a lot of it is to maintain the character of the Peninsula. We don’t really like to enforce, but we want to enforce for the good of everybody.

Call the Township

Jane: What else do you want Peninsula Township residents to know?

Dave: I’d like to encourage residents to find out about the ordinance. It’s on the Township website (view all the ordinances here), and don’t hesitate to call the Township office, and talk to me or Christina.

Jane: I have to say, most people probably don’t read the ordinance or really think about it unless it affects them.

Dave: Well, it’s not written in such a way that you can really comprehend it. But if someone is building something or wants to put a sign out, they should look at the ordinance or call the Township.

Jane: I use it for reference all the time for Gazette stories. And I would add that residents can also read the Master Plan on the Township website (here).

Dave: What residents CAN comprehend is the beauty of the Peninsula. The sign ordinance, for example, by keeping advertising out, even on your own property … when you think about it, most signs are not telling you something really informational. They’re trying to sell you something.

Jane: Anything else you’d like residents to know?

Dave: I’d also encourage people to contact the Township before you build anything or move any dirt on your property. Most people are not aware that in our township, you need a land use permit. And then along comes me as the bad guy.

Jane: And also, people should be aware that the ordinance is currently being rewritten, and there will be a survey going out to residents in the next few months.

Dave: Yes, and if people have a problem with the ordinance or anything, they should come to the meetings and speak up.

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