The city of Burnsville violated residents’ rights under state and federal laws when it enforced city code violations at a Burnsville mobile home park in 2015, a Dakota County judge ruled Wednesday.
District Judge Colleen G. King found that the city’s crackdown on carports, awnings and visible garbage cans at the Rambush Estates Mobile Home Park was motived by prejudice against poor people and minorities, violated the residents’ constitutional due-process rights and ran afoul of extensive federal and state rules related to mobile homes. In short, she found that federal and state law “pre-empts” the city from enforcing its own codes.
“Burnsville made an intentional decision to establish a proactive code enforcement process because of the number of ‘ethnically diverse’ people moving into the city and that they ‘do not know how to take care of their property’ because it is ‘not in their culture,’ ” King wrote in her 45-page decision.
The comments cited by the judge were made during a Burnsville City Council work session on June 12, 2012, which was presented to the court as a video exhibit.
Burnsville officials strongly disagreed with the judge’s ruling, and their lawyers said they were likely to appeal.
“Obviously, we’re very disappointed in the ruling, specifically the statement that the program was established to target or discriminate against certain populations,” said Heather Johnston, Burnsville’s city manager. “We’ve always taken pride in being an inclusive and caring community and that kind of statement doesn’t fit with our values or the way we provide services.”
Kathryn Eich, a resident of Rambush Estates who sued on behalf of the residents, was unavailable for comment Thursday. Valerie Sims, a lawyer representing the residents, said Eich is thrilled with the ruling. “She always knew what the city was doing was wrong,” Sims said. “She keeps her property in meticulous condition.”
Eich, a single mom with a disabled son, has lived in the park for a dozen years. She had been cited for three code violations via a letter from the city in 2015. The first was for having a carport. She said she had permission from Rambush Estates to install it. The second and third citations were for leaving a wheelbarrow outside and trash cans in public view.
The city said in a follow-up letter that she must prove that her carport meets state building codes, which would allow her to apply for a variance from the city. The variance application costs $750 and requires a $1,000 escrow fee.
King noted that other residents received similar letters, primarily for violations carrying hefty fines related to “carports and attached awnings, exterior storage and trash containers being in view.” The fines were imposed despite the fact that state inspectors found no violations, she said.
King found that Burnsville’s enforcement actions in the mobile home park violated a 1974 federal law, which states that “manufactured housing plays a vital role in meeting the housing needs of the nation” and provides “a significant resource for affordable homeownership and rental housing to all Americans.”
That law has its own standards related to mobile home construction and safety, as does the state. Because these rules are so extensive, they pre-empt local standards, King said.
In addition, she found that the city violated the park residents’ rights to “due process” when it notified them of their purported violations. She said the notices were unclear about what rules the residents had violated and how to comply. The judge found that Burnsville’s building codes related to manufactured homes were so vague that an ordinary person wouldn’t understand them.
King said the city failed to cite correct or current codes, or cited codes that had been found to be unconstitutional. And the city failed to provide notice of the residents’ appellate rights or ways they could contest the citations. She noted that Burnsville has created a new appeals process and rescinded all pending violations at Rambush.
Paul Reuvers, the city’s attorney, didn’t deny that City Council members made the improper comments cited by the judge, but he said the statements cited in her ruling were taken out of context.
Reuvers defended the city’s practice of enforcing building codes through regular inspections rather than waiting for complaints. He noted that many other cities do the same thing.
“The proactive code means we look at every single home in the city,” Reuvers said. “We treat everyone the same.”
Reuvers disagreed with the judge’s pre-emption finding. He said there’s a section in the state building code related to manufactured homes, which Burnsville has adopted and which the city is obligated to enforce.
Sanctions have not been determined in the case, but a trial will be held to determine damages. Reuvers said he’s likely to appeal the decision before then.