The Whistleblower blog was started in 2008. Look for posts by these contributors: James Eli Shiffer, Jane Friedmann, Brandon Stahl, Eric Roper and Alejandra Matos. | Check out the Whistleblower archive.
The Star Tribune's journalists need your help blowing the whistle in Minnesota. Contact us here.
Whistleblower recently wrote about a garage in north Minneapolis that has been a thorn in the side of neighbors for years. Over time the structure went from barely passable to almost pass-throughable - thanks to a hole in the side.
Neighbors tried to talk with those living at 2901 Dupont Av. N. about the problem and made repeated calls to the city. The city, for its part, sent out inspectors and issued citations and fines. Most citations went unaddressed and fines went unpaid, though the homeowner did correct some violations by cutting tall grass and picking up trash.
But the garage was never repaired, even after a car smashed into it a couple years ago and a thief earlier this year used a truck to yank a motorcycle through a hole in a side wall, sending studs and siding flying. Short of imminent hazards, the city said it can't repair or tear down privately-owned structures without owners' permission.
Officials recently obtained permission to tear down the parts of the garage that hadn't yet succumbed to gravity or vandalism, and by 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, a contractor had wiped all record of the structure off the face of the block. It's unclear whether hazmat suits were required for removal of the knee-high debris festering inside.
"We’re very excited," neighbor Mary Rice said about the end results. "The first thing I did was I went across the street and told Pastor Dale [at St. Olaf Lutheran Church] and he thought that was great. ... Then I just sent a little blurb to [council member] Diane Hofstede saying 'Garage is down, hallelujah.'"
On Sunday Whistleblower wrote about a man in an unusual real estate situation. Comment below or click on the original posting to join an earlier discussion.
Marc Barone thought he'd gotten a great deal when he bought a double-wide manufactured home and 10 acres of land south of Duluth in 2005. The trouble was, the house and the land weren't in the same place.
The disabled former furniture mover paid $62,900 cash and retired to the comfortable, three-year-old home in the woods near Kerrick, Minn.
What Barone, 57, didn't know at the time was that the house he was sold was located entirely on land owned by his neighbor. The land Barone bought was actually next door, a tamarack swamp too wet to build on.
Despite the land changing hands several times, no surveys were done that could have detected the error. Seven years later, nobody knows how to fix the situation.
"It's so convoluted it defies common sense," said Rick Jurek, who inherited the land under Barone's mobile home after his father died in 2008.
"[Barone] can't sell the house because he doesn't own the land. Dad couldn't sell the land because there's a house on it he didn't own," Jurek said.
Jurek's father, John, bought the property years earlier as an investment, but rarely visited it, his son said. His father's first inkling something was amiss was when his property taxes spiked shortly after Barone moved in.
An assessor told John Jurek there was a house on his property. John Jurek called Barone to say his house was in the wrong place. Barone was understandably skeptical. "I said, 'Well, you're just some guy calling me up telling me this. I need some proof."
In the next few months he got all the proof he could want.
When it all went . . . west
The original mistake that led to the misplaced double-wide dates back a decade. According to county records, Nadine Behrman bought the 10 acres in April 2002.
By 2003, Behrman was living in a double-wide that had shown up on the adjacent Jurek property. It had septic, water and electrical service.
To this day the land Behrman bought has no street address, yet a public records search shows that in 2002 and 2003 Behrman had a mailing address of 50037 Lower Estates Drive: the Jurek land. Behrman could not be reached for comment.
Behrman's bank foreclosed on her in about 2004 and Edina Realty listed the property for sale -- with the double-wide included -- on behalf of Freddie Mac, the federally controlled mortgage lender.
Barone saw the listing, and a real estate agent showed him around the property -- Jurek's property, Barone said.
The purchase agreement listed the Jurek property's address, but provided a legal description of the adjacent 10 acres. It also promised window treatments, a dishwasher and other amenities the swamp could not claim.
A representative of Edina Realty said the company "didn't know anything" about any irregularities. "If we'd had any indication there was any problem . . . we would have stopped, we would have got more information before the transaction went forward," said Jim Eisler, a managing broker in Edina Realty's Brainerd and Crosslake office. "I've never seen this before in 37 years."
Experts agree that if either Freddie Mac or Barone had paid for a survey, the problem would have been discovered before their deal went through.
"The surveyor would have found you can't put that mobile home where you want to because you don't own that land," said Troy Stewart, a Pine County deputy assessor. "That probably would have been the wise thing to do, but obviously that didn't happen."
Fixes suggested, but nixed
Barone got the bad news in a phone call from his neighbor.
Larry Veldhouse, then a Pine County assessor, confirmed John Jurek was telling the truth. Barone's title company sent out someone with a GPS to draw up an approximate plat that showed the house recessed deep into Jurek territory.
John Jurek told Barone to move the house or buy the land it was sitting on. Barone balked. After all, he had already paid for what he thought was his land.
Barone suggested they sell their property in one transaction to a third party and divide up the proceeds. John Jurek wasn't interested.
View from the assessor's office
In 2006, Pine County began imposing personal property taxes on Barone for the mobile home and taxing Jurek for his five acres and the improvements made by Behrman to the land: the well, septic and electrical service.
"Typically when you have a well on your property, it's your property, but being this is kind of a mess up there, Jureks have no records showing that they paid to have a well put in," Stewart said.
Blame proves elusive
Both Barone and Rick Jurek believe somebody should take the rap for this "mess."
"The ideal situation would be that someone else either reimburse Marc or pay us for the land" Rick Jurek said.
But that "someone else" has proven elusive.
Despite a document signed by Freddie Mac acknowledging transfer of "land and buildings" to Barone, his title insurance policy with Attorneys' Title Insurance Fund Inc., in Florida, only lists the land.
Attorneys' Title invoked a broadly worded clause that claimed no responsibility for "matter[s] which would be disclosed by an accurate survey."
Larry Wertheim, a real estate lawyer for Kennedy & Graven in Minneapolis, questions whether Freddie Mac had the right to sell the house and improvements. The mortgage was likely "on the property of the adjacent owner who inadvertently [put] a house on the wrong piece of property . . . property that [s]he didn't have any interest in," he said.
"You can give a deed to someone but if it doesn't convey good title ... I can give you a deed to the Brooklyn Bridge but it won't do you much good," Wertheim said.
Edina Realty points the finger at Freddie Mac. "If Freddie Mac stated something incorrectly, the liability falls on the seller," Eisler said.
A spokesman for Freddie Mac did not return phone calls for comment.
To hold Freddie Mac liable, Barone would need to prove that the seller committed fraud, but "it sounds like the seller may not have known either," Wertheim said.
"I could get dirty and evict [Barone] and not on my dime either, but I don't want to do that," Rick Jurek said. "We've been pretty friendly throughout this whole thing."
If nothing is done, the issue may settle itself. The doctrine of adverse possession gives Barone a possible claim to Jurek's land after openly occupying it for 15 years, Wertheim said. He's got eight years to go.
Gerry and Margie Richels have been fighting an uphill battle with Blaine City Hall for almost two years.
Their property used to be at a higher elevation than the land next to them. But since the city allowed a developer to raise the elevation 6 feet and build houses on it, water and silt washes down into the Richels' yard.
Richels, a retired engineer, had warned that such a thing might happen when he caught wind of the project, but the city promised him it wouldn't. His frequent complaints to City Hall since then have prompted numerous attempts to stop the erosion and drainage trouble, but he's still not satisfied -- especially since the city allowed the berm to be built right up to Richels' property line, despite a standard calling for a 3-foot setback.
City officials, for their part, are exasperated with Richels. One council member calls it the "project from hell."
Mayor Tom Ryan acknowledges that since the townhouses were built, "it's a 6-foot drop right onto his property. It's steep." But he indicated Richels is in good company. "Drainage problems in this city are pretty typical."
They're also a frequent source of conflict among neighbors.
"Property owners have the right to drain water from their property onto their neighbor's, as long as it doesn't unreasonably damage their neighbors'," said Adam A. Ripple, a lawyer at Rinke Noonan, a St. Cloud firm that specializes in these kinds of disputes. "That, as you can imagine, does nothing but breed litigation and arguments. There's usually not a clear-cut way to resolve issues if you have folks that don't want to work together toward a common solution."
At this point, the city and the Richelses seem far apart.
When Richels bought his property in 1998, his next-door neighbor was a farm. There's disagreement about which way the water used to flow -- the mayor says that the farmland drained onto Richels' property, but a hydrologist hired by Richels concluded the water used to drain in the other direction.
In 2006, when Merit Development Co. Inc. went before the planning commission for zoning approval to build on the site, Richels expressed his concerns about runoff. Commission meeting minutes show that the city's project coordinator, Tom Scott, said "that it will be looked at with the grading plan to be sure there will be no runoff water running into Mr. Richels property."
Minks Custom Homes Inc. later became the developer. When nearby houses were built and dirt was graded two years ago, the yards for two houses abutting Richels' land were graded to slope down to the property line. While city engineering standards recommend a 3-foot setback for retaining walls from property lines, city manager Clark Arneson said those rules are "standards, not ordinances or statutes."
One home's downspouts directed water down the slope. With silt accumulated in his yard, Richels contacted the city with his objections.
The city directed the builder to undertake a series of remedial efforts. A swaled berm that slanted at 45 degrees, ending at the property line. A new gutter. Redirected downspouts. A double row of rocks on the hillside.
The measures helped, but the runoff continued.
Richels dogged city staff and council members with e-mails and phone calls as the berm's sod sagged and failed to take hold. Contractors repeatedly entered his property to collect debris or add another layer of dirt and sod to the berm.
This year, when the city sought permission to enter his property to plant seed for native plants, which they said would solve the problem once and for all, Richels said no.
A city engineer said the work could only safely be done from the bottom of the steep slope, but Richels told the engineer to ask the person who approved the project how to maintain the berm from the owner's property.
"Like any organization, you're going to have situations where mistakes happen," David Clark, a city councilman, said. If a project "can't be brought into compliance reasonably, then some other accommodation is generally worked out."
But Ryan, the mayor, feels the city has done everything it can to try to fix the problem, short of tearing down a house or building "the foolishest-looking [retaining wall] you've ever seen."
"I don't think he wants that," he said.
But Richels does want that.
In July 2011, he proposed a solution based on his reading of city rules: A 3-foot setback, a 4-foot-high retaining wall and a swale leading to a city sewer nearby. The idea gained no traction.
"I've lost over 200 hours in this. I've lost sleep over this because I wake up at night wondering how to get this fixed," Richels said.
|Crime (1)||Employment (1)|
|Whistleblower (439)||Home Improvement (4)|
|Advertising claims (65)||Businesses in hot water (294)|
|Buyer beware (183)||Civil liberties (19)|
|Complaint sagas (110)||Corruption (1)|
|Dangerous products (49)||Free speech (1)|
|Government spends your money (30)||How to blow the whistle (12)|
|Loopholes (10)||Neighborhood nuisances (36)|
|Polling problems (21)||Problems on the job (14)|
|Property problems (44)||Public records (37)|
|Scams (145)||Seniors (40)|
|Whistleblowers (22)||Discrimination (4)|