Ordinance dispute escalates in New England; matter poised for legal battle
During its monthly meeting on Monday, the New England City Council and resident Nate Richter argued on whether a race car sitting on his property is in violation of a city ordinance prohibiting "junk from public view."
Four months after several New England residents received letters to clean up their properties, issued by the city in bulk as part of the process to clean up the town, one resident's battle continues as his attorney argues that the process infringes on his rights to due process.
The New England City Council held its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at City Hall, where a back-and-forth heated discussion transpired between a few councilmembers and New England resident Nate Richter. In May, Richter along with 40 other residents received a letter from the City of New England notifying them that they were in violation of North Dakota Century Code.
In Richter's case, the alleged code violation stems from a parked race car Richter works on as part of a long-term project. The vehicle in question is located behind his house and near the alley, yet the city argues that the car is in violation of city code.
In a phone interview with The Press, Richter said he’s not opposed to the city enforcing ordinances to clean up the area.
“I agree 100% that New England needs to be cleaned up,” he said. “They’re going about it the wrong way and they’re definitely going after the wrong people.”
Mayor Marty Opdahl said that letters were mailed to notify residents of the city's attempt to provide a “clean, healthy and safe environment.” After decades of little to no action from residents and leniency from the city on enforcement of the code, councilmembers began to pursue other options. The city in response cracked down on violations of the city's ordinance for property owners who had junk or unused vehicles on their land.
As of Monday night, the council still has not decided exactly how infractions will be issued or the cost of the fines related to the violations. The Hettinger County Sheriff’s Office advised the council to consult their city attorney to work out the process of issuing a long form summons and complaint for each violation.
In a previous interview with Councilman Chris Fitterer, he noted that the city has contracts with the court system in Mott and with the local sheriff’s office to help the city council enforce this ordinance, however there is yet a process in place to assess fines.
According to the city, the committee can determine what those fines will be based on the severity of the violations on a property. Opdahl says that fines may vary from $25 to $500 per day, per violation.
Upon receiving the initial letter, which Richter says was vague and didn't identify what the issues were on his property, he attended a city council meeting in June and said the council requested that he place gravel over the area where the race car is parked. Though he complied to the request, he says it was an inconvenience to set such a short deadline as Richter has three jobs and limited time off.
Two months later, in August, Richter attended a second meeting to inquire on a second letter he received. During the Aug. 2 meeting, Richter says Councilman Drew Madler used unprofessional language and directed ad hominem attacks against him.
Richter then requested the council provide written correspondence verifying that the gravel purchased and placed on his property for his vehicle brought him into compliance with the code — which they did.
Shortly after receiving the letter of compliance, a fourth letter was mailed to him home stating that he was still in violation of the ordinance as it related to his vehicle.
It was at this point that Richter hired Attorney Haylee Cripe, former city attorney for the City of Dickinson, as legal counsel to defend him in the matter.
“Mr. Richter has retained my services due to concerns that the laws of the city are being enforced in a manner inconsistent with the law, and in a possibly discriminatory and unequal fashion," Cripe said in a letter to the City of New England. "I further have concerns that Mr. Richter’s due process rights may be in jeopardy. How is Mr. Richter expected to comply with the statutes (when) the City Council itself is unclear on the laws? The conflicting letters and ‘further investigation’ raise additional concerns of retaliation and wrongful prosecution."
In her letter, Cripe noted that the council referenced a section of the city code that forbids abandoned vehicles from public view, however argued that said code is inapplicable to the matter at hand as Richter is rebuilding the car for future use.
The months long back and forth conflict between Richter and the city came to a head during Monday night’s meeting, when Councilman Fitterer stated that he had reviewed the tape from a previous meeting and that Richter told him, “I assure you that every vehicle there is licensed and titled.”
Richter denied making said statement and subsequently asked Fitterer to produce that recording, which he was unable to do. The Press also requested a copy of the recording from City Auditor Jason Jung, who did not provide a copy in response to the request as of this publication. Jung did issue a statement regarding the matter, saying "the city council has decided to leave it in the hands of our attorney."
The meeting devolved into a back and forth debate between Councilwoman Breann Krebs and Madler on how best to proceed with the alleged ordinance violation, confusion with letters previously sent and witnessed councilmembers voicing their support and opposition publicly in a contentious exchange.
“The last meeting I ran, we discussed me sending a letter to Nate stating that he did what we asked him, that he was good to go. So I wrote that letter,” Councilwoman Breann Krebs said. “Then we come back next meeting and it turns out that… we didn’t word it right or something, because I wrote a letter stating that he was okay. Now Marty, who is not here today, has written a letter stating that what Nate did to try and comply with us is not within ordinance. So, how far is it necessary to be pushing this when the council’s already sent him one letter stating it’s fine. Anybody? Because we’re kind of going back on our word as far as that goes.”
Fitterer responded, saying, "We understand your opinion, it’s time to move on."
Krebs stood firm and continued by asking how far the city would go when a resident has shown attempts to be cooperative.
Madler interjected in disagreement with Kreb's characterization of Richter's actions, saying that Richter had not been cooperative but rather had been "fighting us every step of the way."
Ending the back and forth exchange, Fitterer called for the meeting to continue with other business.
“Sitting here talking about this, it only gets worse. We’re done with this conversation and move on,” Fitterer said. “We have other stuff to do.”
The council then proceeded to spend the remainder of the meeting speaking by phone with an individual regarding an underground sewer project currently underway at the house owned by Councilman Tom Gorek.
No further city business was discussed.