Code dispute turns ugly

Maplewood officials wanted an entrepreneur to make changes before issuing a new permit. When she refused, they took action that some think went too far.

In a corner of Patricia Gearin's warehouse, not far from the immense grinding machine she's forbidden to operate, a shattered glass door leans against a wall. It's a disturbing reminder of the day in 2008 when Maplewood police officers broke into her two-story building in a futile effort aimed at forcing Gearin to comply with state fire and safety codes.

The confrontation was the most violent incident in a three-year dispute between the entrepreneur and Maplewood officials. Last month Gearin filed her third lawsuit against the city. According to the city, the legal battles have cost Maplewood's publicly funded insurer $410,000 for code violations that could have been fixed for about $10,000.

Gearin says her arrest on misdemeanor charges and the city's constantly changing demands have damaged her physical and mental health and destroyed a thriving, environmentally friendly business. She says her company can't survive without the machine, which she bought to grind old sneakers and other waste into pellets used to make oil absorption products. She says the city should let her business, Wipers Recycling, operate under the building's existing permit because it allows for light manufacturing.

City officials disagree. They say Gearin needs a new certificate of occupancy because she changed the use of the building, which previously housed a business that sold lawnmowers, snowblowers and other equipment. City officials want Gearin to reduce clutter and ensure the sprinkler system will work before issuing a new permit. They point out that the $150,000 grinder caught fire the only time it was used.

"We're not trying to put this poor lady out of business," said James Antonen, Maplewood's city manager.

But the city bungled its application for the search warrant that led to the police raid, according to a district court judge. And the state Court of Appeals said the city's decision to appeal the dismissal of misdemeanor charges against Gearin was a waste of money.

"Who thought it was a good idea to get a no-knock warrant and break down the door of a business because of building code violations?" said Gearin's attorney, Jill Clark.

The conflict also prompted a state probe of former Mayor Diana Longrie, who works as an attorney and is now running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum for the DFL nomination. While in office, Longrie attended four closed council sessions at which local officials discussed Gearin's lawsuits without revealing that she represented Gearin in lawsuits over unpaid debts.

Longrie, first elected mayor in 2005, left office in January after losing her re-election campaign. In March, City Attorney Alan Kantrud issued a report revealing Longrie's connection to Gearin and referred the matter to the state Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, which handles disciplinary cases.

Longrie concedes she kept quiet about her business dealings with Gearin while she was mayor, but she maintains there was no conflict of interest. At a March council meeting, she dismissed the report as a political stunt aimed at derailing her Congressional campaign.

When asked if she thinks the city has treated Gearin fairly, Longrie said, "I think that there are instances in the past 10 years where a lot of people have been unfairly treated in Maplewood."

An 'innovative' entrepreneur

For much of her career, Gearin, 54, was literally a rags-to-riches story. In 1983, the onetime seamstress realized she could convert scraps of fabric to cash by selling them to auto mechanics, who used the cloths to wipe up spills. Two decades later, her St. Paul Park-based business was generating revenues of $400,000 per year.

"She's a very innovative person," said Wayne Gjerde, an official with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who helped Gearin develop her business.

In 2007, Gearin obtained a $1.3 million loan from Premier Bank to expand her business. She bought a building at 1255 Cope Av. in Maplewood and ordered a six-ton grinder capable of shredding hundreds of shoes each hour.

But Gearin's expansion hit a roadblock in 2007, when Maplewood building official David Fisher stopped by to take a look at her operation. When Fisher found out the building would house a huge grinder and tons of combustible materials, he told Gearin she needed a new certificate of occupancy. To get one, he said, Gearin would have to make a number of improvements aimed at making the building safe and more accessible to the handicapped.

Maplewood officials repeatedly visited the building in July 2007, each time finding uncorrected building and fire code violations. They said Gearin ignored the warnings. Her employees started the grinder for its first test in January 2008. The shoes caught fire, causing smoke damage throughout the building. The city slapped a "stop work" notice on the building.

Fisher convinced a judge that the city was entitled to search the building for "dangerous and unauthorized" conditions. He swore the building didn't even have an occupancy certificate, but a judge later concluded his statement was "at a minimum, a reckless omission."

On Feb. 15, 2008, after Gearin didn't let them in, officers smashed the glass, unlocked the door and entered the building. A confrontation ensued, and by the end of it, Gearin was taken away in handcuffs. Among the four misdemeanor charges were assault, disorderly conduct and obstructing the legal process. In October 2009, prosecutors dismissed all the charges.

The city gave Gearin permission to operate a retail business in the building in April 2008, but she has lost every attempt to legally operate the grinder. In May of this year, an administrative law judge ruled that Gearin should have checked with the city first to see whether the existing permit allowed her to use the machine.

In court, Gearin has accused the city of interfering with her business and brutality relating to the 2008 raid and arrest.

Antonen said the city's nonprofit insurer, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, has incurred most of the cost in defending Maplewood. Ultimately, he said, Maplewood taxpayers will spend $160,000 to $200,000 on the legal battle.

Meanwhile, the bank has begun foreclosing on Gearin's building.

"I'm just so sick of this," Gearin said.

Staff researcher Jane Friedmann contributed to this report.

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