A business owner in St. Paul's North End is suing the city over a City Council decision that would effectively stop him from selling tobacco.
In a complaint filed Sept. 14 in Ramsey County District Court, attorneys for Ali Alfureedy, who operates Maryland Market supermarket and tobacco shop at 444 W. Maryland Av., argued that the council's rejection of a rezoning request was a politically motivated attempt to blame the property for increased crime in the surrounding neighborhood.
The zoning squabble was sparked by a dispute over a tobacco product shop license that the city says it erroneously granted Alfureedy in 2019. Though tobacco has been sold on the property for more than a decade, city ordinances adopted in recent years changed St. Paul's zoning rules so that tobacco shops cannot open in areas classified for certain uses.
Four months before Alfureedy's license expired in June, he asked the city to rezone his site to a land-use classification that permits tobacco stores. The request was approved by the St. Paul Planning Commission and its Zoning Committee, but the council unanimously voted it down.
The lawsuit singles out Council President Amy Brendmoen, who represents the North End and cited concerns about crime to urge her fellow council members to deny Alfureedy's rezoning application during a June council meeting.
"Councilmember Brendmoen, and the City Council … would prefer to blame complicated social problems on law-abiding individuals in order to limit inquiry into the City Council's lack of legitimacy, the limits on their power to make actual change through legislation, and the mistakes that they have made in legislating," the complaint said.
In a written statement Tuesday, Brendmoen said those living near the property have "clearly indicated" that they prefer the site's current zoning, which she has said suits the residential feel of what once was a higher-traffic street.
"It's unfortunate that the owner of Maryland Market is paying lawyers to fight in court and play games in the media instead of using those precious dollars to clean up its property (and its act) in the North End," she wrote.
Records show police visited the shop's street corner more than 1,700 times since the start of 2018. A majority of those trips were proactive check-ins, but officers also have responded to calls about gun violence, assaults, dangerous driving and drug deals.
When discussions about Alfureedy's rezoning requests started in the spring, the North End Neighborhood Organization said it had received a number of concerns from neighbors saying Alfureedy was not doing enough to curb crime in his store's parking lot. Brendmoen cited those sentiments ahead of the June council vote, when she described accounts of "violence that was emanating" from Alfureedy's property.
The lawsuit said Brendmoen and the council unfairly linked the tobacco store to national trends in violent crime. Ben Loetscher, one of Alfureedy's attorneys, previously said the store owner added surveillance cameras, hired off-duty police officers and "is open to other suggestions to addressing neighborhood concerns."
"Councilmember Brendmoen's comments and reasons for denying the Application for rezoning included overstatements of fact, false statements, and misleading statements, and they are not supported by reasonable evidence," said the lawsuit, which called the council's decision "arbitrary, capricious, and based on false representation and clearly erroneous facts and reasoning."
The complaint also argues that Alfureedy did not have to rezone his property in the first place because of state and city laws that act like a grandfather clause, granting existing businesses permission to continue operations even if they don't align with new land-use rules.
On Tuesday, Loetscher declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. In a statement, City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said: "We have received the complaint related to the denial of the rezoning application, and plan to respond."
Alfureedy makes about 50% of his sales through the tobacco shop, according to his complaint. He sued in response to a notice that the city intended to revoke his license. He continues to sell tobacco for now.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478