Ask ELi: Mid-Century House Converted to “Recreational Building” in Whitehills?

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Alice Dreger for ELi

The properties at 507 Woodland Pass and 516 Belmonte Circle are now combined.

Was a single-family midcentury modern house on a quiet residential street in the Whitehills neighborhood of East Lansing really turned into a “recreational building”? An ELi reader saw an unusual listing for a home with an asking price of almost $1.4 million and asked us what we could find out about this apparent “house plus recreation building.”

The short answer: Indeed, a house on Belmonte Circle was converted to what is now being called a “recreation building” for a home on Woodland Pass. The two properties backed up to each other, and are now legally combined.

Our reader wrote to ask: “Two residential properties just went up for sale in EL. It is listed on Zillow as 507 Woodland Pass but it includes property at 516 Belmonte Cir….The listing describes the 516 Belmonte building as a ‘recreational building’, instead of a house. I’m wondering if that is how they are allowed to sell the 2 as 1 property.”

Alice Dreger for ELi

507 Woodland Pass in East Lansing, currently for sale.

The reader is correct that Zillow is listing the 5-bedroom, 6-bath house at 507 Woodland Pass as being for sale in combination with “a secondary recreation building” located at 516 Belmonte Circle. Zillow is showing a listing price of $1,395,000 for the combined property.

The listing explains that you can “meander through the back yard” of 507 Woodland Pass “to the recreation building” at 516 Belmonte Circle. Yet if you approach 516 Belmonte Circle from the road, it looks like the property hosts an ordinary house with all the shades pulled down.

Alice Dreger for ELi

The structure at 516 Belmonte Circle in East Lansing, converted from a house to an accessory building.

Some background on the properties and their owners:

According to information from the East Lansing Tax Assessor, M. Kris and Jennifer Elliott bought the house at 507 Woodland Pass in 2005 for $346,000. Then they bought 516 Belmonte Circle in 2012 for $245,000 and combined the properties into one parcel in 2013. The properties shared back lot lines.

The orange oval added by ELi shows the location of the combined properties.

The owners officially converted the house on Belmonte Circle to an “accessory building,” legally ceasing its existence as a single-family home. So, the property now has one house and the accessory building, called a “recreation building” in the listing.

Kris Elliott is a local businessman and developer known to long-time ELi readers as the developer whose company added a fifth-floor penthouse to “St. Anne Lofts,” on Albert Ave. during construction without having first obtained legal permission to do so. A building inspector in East Lansing was fired during the heated public controversy, which was fueled in part by a collapse of an interior floor during construction and Elliott’s decision to adorn the building’s facade with a prominent cross.

The Elliotts asked the Tax Assessor to combine the two Whitehills residential properties in 2013.

The Elliotts met with East Lansing Tax Assessor David Lee in early 2013, and Kris Elliott followed up by writing in email they had moved “to legally combine the lots” saying that the house on Belmonte “has been designed and is considered an ancillary structure.” Further, “all of the infrastructure has been removed from the structure” on Belmonte, with “water service, gas service, electrical services terminated.” An “updated survey” was included:

The survey submitted to the City of East Lansing in 2013. In this image, Woodland Pass is to the left, and Belmonte Circle to the right.

The tax assessor combined the properties into one tax parcel as requested. The zoning code would have normally required that each of these two lots have a single-family house on them, not just an “accessory building” with no house, but because they properties were combined, this approach was legal under the zoning code.

The zoning code does restrict the dimensions of an “accessory building.” It appears that some creative reading of the situation allowed for the house on Belmonte to be converted in a way that met the code, particularly in terms of height.

What the City says about what happened:

We asked the City of East Lansing to tell us what happened with this lot combo and conversion of a house to a “recreation building,” as it seems to be pretty unusual for a residential neighborhood. The answer from Peter Menser, Planning and Zoning Administrator, was relayed by the City’s Communications Department.

“The combination of parcels requires administrative approval from the Planning and Zoning Administrator,” Menser informed us. “Unfortunately, a search of our files did not produce any documentation with regards to a lot combination for the properties at 516 Belmonte Circle and 507 Woodland Pass being reviewed or processed by our office.”

Menser explained that, “it is likely that our office at the time conveyed approval of the combination to the City Assessor prior to him processing the request.”

It’s not clear what approval was needed from Planning and Zoning. We’ve asked that question, and the City hasn’t responded. What we do know is that the Elliotts made a request to the tax assessor to combine the parcels, which the tax assessor did. And they made requests to the Building Department for permits and inspections on the conversion of the house to an accessory building, and records show that all of that was approved.

The Certificate of Occupancy (final approval) from the East Lansing Building Dept. for the conversion of 516 Belmonte Circle from a house to an accessory structure.

What the Building Department records tell us:

In 2013, the owners applied for and obtained building permits to convert the house at 516 Belmonte Circle into “an accessory structure.” The City’s Department of Planning, Building, and Development shows the plan to be for “conversion of dwelling unit to accessory structure.” The plans show that many of the rooms in the existing house – rooms that would have been living space – were labeled in the plans as “storage” rooms.

The materials from 2013 explained the conversion this way: “The original home was a 5 bedroom 4 bath walk-out ranch and was 6,500 finished square feet. The resulting building[,] which is considered a secondary structure, has 1,607 finished square feet and 756 basement storage square feet,” for a total of 2,363 square feet.

According to the City, “A demolition permit was issued in 2012 for the structure fronting on [Belmonte Circle] that removed the pool, pool house, a portion of the house itself, and some landscaping from the property.” Those changes presumably explain how the square footage dropped so dramatically, from about 6,500 square feet to about 2,400 square feet.

The City also confirmed for ELi that, “A building permit was issued in 2014 for the conversion of a dwelling unit…to an accessory structure, a condition of which was that the structure not be used as a dwelling or habitable space.”

The Zillow listing conveys a different feel from what the City says:

The Zillow listing first talks about the house on Woodland Pass, and then it goes on to describe the “recreation building” as “Amazing and secluded mid-century space. Over the top architectural greeting hall with wine railings and a 2-story great room with a spectacular 2-level stone fireplace. Quiet alcoves[,] place for a full serving kitchen, 2 full gorgeous baths, game area, and media space. Over-sized secondary garage space perfect for storing cars, RV, or as a half basketball court to play indoor basketball in the snowy months.”

The listing continues, “Recreation building: Estimated 2,950 total sq. ft. of living space. 31.6X14.10 living/family room, 25.5X15.6 dining room, 25.5X15.8 foyer, 14.2X15.4 den, 27.2X19.2 lower level, 40.11X15.1 bridge, 40.10X24.1 garage, 12X14 overhead door, and 2 full baths.”

What’s the property worth?

The saying in real estate is that a property is worth what someone will pay for it. East Lansing is experiencing a strong seller’s market right now, but whether someone will pay $1.395 million for this property remains to be seen. The tax assessor has currently assigned a market value of about $650,000 to this property – less than half the current listing price.

The property taxes are just over $11,000 per year on a taxable value of $199,032, which means that if it sells at the asking price, with the state-regulated taxable value cap removed, the property taxes would go up to about $39,000 per year.

A note on sourcing: This investigation used publicly-available materials obtained through the East Lansing Building Department, the Tax Assessor’s Office, and the Freedom of Information Act. If you want to know how to look up publicly-available information about a property, contact us with your question.

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