James Barth checked in to the Hennepin County workhouse on Saturday for a five-day stay, courtesy of a squabble with the city of Orono over what he was storing in his yard. While the dispute began with a May 2010 inspection, the most recent trouble involved some ladders and logs near a garage, according to his brother, Jeff.
Imprisoning someone who violates a zoning ordinance is an unusual but not unprecedented use of a city's power to govern what someone does on their property. The city says Barth violated city ordinance 78-1577, which governs "exterior storage" in residential zones. An ordinance violation can be treated as a misdemeanor.
Barth is an over-the-road trucker who lives with his brother John at 3725 Togo Road, an old house on a leafy lot that's a little more than half an acre. He's actually one of triplets. James, John and Jeff are 49 years old, and they're speaking with one voice about what they see as a city going overboard in punishing a property owner.
"He shouldn't be going to jail for ladders and firewood," Jeff Barth said. "It's just outrageous."
Soren Mattick, the city attorney for Orono, said that the workhouse sentence was the decision of a judge that followed a missed court date, a bench warrant and a recent inspection that revealed continuing code violations.
"I don't think it just comes down to what's on the lawn," Mattick said. As far as the city prosecuting someone for the upkeep of their property, "those standards are meant to be community standards... This is how we would like to see the community to look."
The trouble began with a city inspection in May 2010, which revealed Barth was keeping "lumber, scrap metals, ladders, tires, rims, metal shelving, garbage bags, 5-gallon buckets, tarps, furniture, utility trailers, miscellaneous construction debris, junk and a Ford L800 Diesel vehicle with expired registration." After a third inspection, in August 2010, determined that more junk had accumulated ("a wooden gate, an appliance, a battery, and a carpet remnant") the city decided to prosecute. In 2011, Barth pleaded guilty to one count of violating a city ordinance, and received probation.
He got rid of the old truck and much of the other stuff, but after another inspection this spring Barth was back in court. Judge Ivy Bernhardson ordered him to report to the workhouse on July 19 and told him to have the violations eliminated by July 24.
John Barth showed up at the Orono City Council meeting June 23 to plead for help. Mattick said it was in the judge's hands. "Mattick noted James Barth had three years to clean up the violations and that it was not a matter of two ladders. Mattick stated there were a number of pictures showing violations presented at the hearing and that if James Barth had done what the court ordered three years ago, he would not have served any time in jail," according to the minutes of the meeting.
I'm still waiting to see those pictures, which I've requested from Mattick and the Hennepin district court staff. For now, I offer the photo above, which Jeff Barth emailed to me.
Jeff Barth said that before last week, his brother got a Bobcat, buried the rotting wood and got rid of the other stuff, so there are no more violations. But that wasn't enough to get the judge to keep James Barth out of jail.