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Not a Small World After All…


Patrick Sullivan - September 3rd, 2013  

After 10 months of struggle and attempts to work within the system, a Leelanau County couple lost their bid to remain in a 240-square-foot home they built as a commitment to the environment and in an effort to live low-impact lives.

The Centerville Township board rejected a recommendation from its planning commission and from the county planning department to eliminate a requirement that homes must contain at least 800 square feet of living space.

The vote in the township just north of Cedar was a disappointment to Rolf and Mari von Walthausen, a couple who had hoped to remain in their rustic cabin on nearly 50 acres.

Now the couple are considering whether to build an 800-square-foot home or put an addition on one of two 240-square-foot cabins they’ve constructed on their land.

Trouble began for the von Walthausens last year, when their dream of living close to nature and with a small footprint was profiled in the Northern Express.

They also presented a workshop called “Build Your Shelter, Rebuild Your Life” at the 2012 Great Lakes Bioneers Traverse City Conference.

The attention set the couple on a course that saw them get cited with a civil infraction for a zoning violation and be refused a variance from the township zoning board of appeals. Ultimately, despite early, optimistic signs, they failed to see through a change in township zoning that would have enabled them to live a simpler, green lifestyle.


Leading up to the July 10 meeting, the von Walthausens believed they had done what they needed to do to ensure what they believe would be a positive change in their township.

They had worked with the county planning department and the township planning board to get a recommendation that Centerville’s 800 square foot minimum be stripped from the books.

The minimum square footage requirement had been put in place in the 1970s when the township, like governments across the state, sought to prevent people from living in trailers.

The trailer industry responded by making their structures slightly bigger and the requirement never accomplished its goal, but remained on the books anyway.

Despite months of study that led to a zoning amendment proposal from the planning commission, the amendment failed when the five member board voted on it on July 10.

The five-member board split 3-2, with treasurer Katrina Pleva and trustee James Schwantes voting for the amendment, and supervisor Leonard Kelenski, clerk David Wurm, and trustee Fred Peplinski voting down the measure.


Planning board chairman Tim Johnson said his board recommended the elimination of the requirement because no one could come up with a reason why a person’s home should be at least 800 square feet.

“The planning commission could not come up with any number that we could reasonably support,” Johnson said. “I personally could not come up with any number that made sense.”

Therefore, Johnson said, it made the most sense to get rid of the minimum.

He said he was surprised and disappointed the board did not approve the amendment.

Supervisor Kelenski used seemingly the inverse logic to support his position that the 800-square-foot minimum should stay in place. He said he wanted to keep it because no one could come up with a reason why it should be removed.

If the minimum were to be removed, the minimum would revert to the minimum allowed in the state’s building code for a residence, which is 120 square feet.

The state minimum apparently became a point of concern for the board members who voted against the amendment.

Wurm, the clerk, said he was concerned that people could build a small, ugly shack and an unlimited number of people could move in.

That makes no sense to Johnson. “I’ve said all along that a big ugly house is way worse than a small ugly house,” Johnson said.


The von Walthausens believe they have been punished for going public with their project before they got approval from the township.

Kelenski denies that the board dealt retribution to the von Walthausens when they voted against them.

“It’s been in effect for 30 years,” he said. “To change it for one customer, one resident, it seems kind of absurd.”

Kalenski said he would consider lowering the square footage requirement to something below 800, but he doesn’t want to eliminate it entirely and let the state building code minimum prevail.

“I think it’s served us well before,” he said. “Maybe it should be reduced to 500 or something like that.”

Kalenski said something the size of what the von Walthausen’s home -- 240 square feet -- was too small.

“You may as well not even call it a house.” he said.

That said, he said he had looked at the von Walthausens place from the outside and agreed it is an attractive little house.

“It’s a neat looking little bungalow or cabin whatever you want to call it, but that’s no guarantee that everybody will build one to that perfection,” Kalenski said.


Wurm, the clerk, said he was at first in favor of reducing the minimum square footage requirement. He said he didn’t want the minimum eliminated, however.

He believes if the minimum is reduced it could allow young families to build homes.

When the planning commission recommended eliminating the minimum altogether in favor of the state minimum, Wurm said he switched his position.

“Even though it was a very difficult decision, it made it very easy for me,” he said. “What came back was, ‘Let’s just get out of the business completely, and let’s just take all requirements away, and you can just build whatever you want.’” Wurm said he believes the minimum should be at least 400 square feet.

“I don’t think you can get a loan for something less than the 400-square-foot size,” Wurm said. “It defeated, as a board member, what I really wanted to provide for the township, which was, ‘Let’s allow people to get smaller homes.’” Rolf von Walthausen noted at the August board meeting that he could now purchase a run-down trailer for $1 on Craigslist, have it hauled to his land, and as long as it was over 800 square feet, he’d be legal.

Wurm said the von Walthausens are welcome to carry out their (joking) threat to purchase a junk trailer, because if they did that, at least they would be living within the township rules.

“I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy the thought that someone would do that, but he is within the ordinance,” Wurm said.

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