One property owner who lost in court makes his frustrations clear
Since the Crookston City Council officially adopted the City’s new Property Maintenance Code that took effect in the spring of 2018, only two cases have actually gone to court before a judge in order to find some sort of resolution. But, still, an at times heated, tense exchange initiated at a council meeting earlier this month by a frustrated local property owner impacted by the code shows that when it comes to enforcing property appearance standards, emotions can run high.
Listening to longtime Woods Addition resident Dennis Larson state his case in the city hall council chambers, it was apparent that he has had issues with the City and at least one neighbor for several years, and that he needed to vent, and that he was fed up. Larson also requested that he be able to address the council in a meeting closed to the public and the media, which was not possible.
“I’ve been mistreated so much by this City that’s it’s unbelievable,” Larson said. “…More people in the world need to know about this. …I’ve been threatened and threatened and threatened and I’m tired of it. I’m ready to fight.”
Larson’s case went to court and a judge subsequently ordered him to pay several hundred dollars in fines. He accused the City, through City Attorney Stephen Larson, of adding charges to the complaint against him and, therefore, increasing the amount in fines he was being ordered to pay. At one point, Stephen Larson joined Dennis Larson at the podium and they proceeded to share their differing accounts of his case with council members, Mayor Wayne Melbye and City Administrator Shannon Stassen.
That was basically the idea behind the creation and adoption of the Property Maintenance Code. With the belief held by some that having various codes for various infractions on the books is being barely worth the paper they’re written on if enforcement and follow-up is consistently lacking, the new code is comprehensive in its structure and process. It includes a graduating fee/fine structure when properties that have drawn complaints aren’t remedied, and several steps that continue all the way to court in instances that aren’t satisfactorily resolved beforehand.
In adopting the code, the City set aside funds to cover any subsequent legal costs resulting from cases that advanced all the way to court, and the City also reached out to various agencies and resources in the community that could potentially help property owners who need to improve their properties but lack the financial wherewithal to do so.
If there’s a persistent complaint about the Property Maintenance Code, it’s that it is based, as previous codes relating to property appearance and maintenance, on Crookston residents bringing complaints about their neighbors to the City. While Building Official Matt Johnson has said that City officials would be asking for trouble, legally, if they drove around town checking out properties and “looking over fences,” Mayor Wayne Melbye on more than one occasion questioned the effectiveness of a supposedly tougher property maintenance code that still relies on people complaining about their neighbors.
Larson said he’d been accused of specific things like having tires piled in his yard, his yard being home to vermin/rats, and his yard smelling bad. He said, and the city attorney agreed, that he has since cleaned up his property enough to be in compliance with the code. But Dennis Larson was still plenty irked by the fines he was being told to pay. (If people don’t pay, the fines/fees are assessed by the City as part of the property owner’s property taxes.)
“We’ve gone through the due process and the fines were put on your taxes,” Melbye told Dennis Larson. “That’s what due process is, that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
“I’m a taxpayer like everyone else. I can show you hundreds of places in town that are in violation,” Dennis Larson said. “…I’ll tell you what, you don’t have to do nothing about it, but I will, and that’s a promise. …I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to get to the bottom of it.”
Building Official Matt Johnson told the Times that he had spoken to Dennis Larson prior to the December council meeting at which he addressed the council, and other than Larson expressing his displeasure with the fees being assessed to him, most of the conversation had to do with how Larson was coming along on his roof repair.
“What happened at the council meeting was uncharacteristic of any previous conversations I have had with him, even when we were in the courtroom,” Johnson said.
Both Property Maintenance Code cases that have made it all the way to court ended up there, he added, because the property owners failed to respond to initial notices from the City and did not pay the fees they were told to pay as a result of complaints and resulting inaction. In both cases, Johnson noted, the court sided with the City.
Johnson added that, in addition to setting aside money for legal costs, the City in another case brought on by the code had to pay to have a building deemed hazardous demolished.