The November 2007 Meeting of Metro Property Rights Action Committee

Don Parmeter of the American Property Rights Coalition, located in St. Paul, was the featured speaker at the meeting of Metro Property Rights Action Committee held at the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Center on November 21st. Parmeter’s organization has a much different focus than that of the sponsoring group, though their names are similar.

Parmeter spoke mainly about a bill which Rep. James Oberstar has introduced in Congress. The House bill has more than 100 sponsors, Including Reps. McCollum and Ellison. There is a companion bill in the Senate. The American Property Rights Coalition is a principal opponent of this bill; the Sierra Club, a principal supporter.

According to Parmeter, Oberstar’s bill would give the federal government jurisdiction of all waters within the United States - not just navigable waters. This would include ditches, ponds, and lakes on private property. The Army Corps of Engineers would be in charge of supervising those waters. In practice, farmers and others who owned them would no longer be able to make water-related decisions on their own but would require the federal government’s permission. Irrigation projects, recreational use of lakes, and other applications would be affected.

Parmeter saw this bill as a huge power grab by the federal government and, from Oberstar’s perspective, an opportunity to leave a personal legacy. Congress would use the interstate-commerce clause as Constitutional authorization for the bill, even though small bodies of water in rural areas have little to do with commerce.

Parmeter, who hails from International Falls, said he got into Property Rights issues as a result of the Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota. He believes that environmental purists succeeded in restricting use of that lake to an unreasonable degree so that recreation on it has been quite limited.

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In the second segment, Bill McGaughey gave an update on the situation with Uncle Bill’s Food Market, once located at Sheridan and Plymouth in north Minneapolis. Bill Sanigular, owner of the property, is back in Africa (where he grew up) exploring personal opportunities. Wife Jean doubts that the middle-aged couple can muster the financial resources to mount an effective legal battle against the city. So it looks as if the city of Minneapolis, though the efforts of Council Member Don Samuels and others, has effectively deprived another north Minneapolis neighborhood of a small grocery store which those who lack transportation to shop at supermarkets some blocks distant. In short, the poor are being run out of town.

Readers of the Watchdog may recall that the Minneapolis Fire Department condemned Sanigular’s building for alleged structural deficiencies such as sagging joists. However, the building had passed a Fire Department inspection the previous summer. A complicating factor was that the University of Minnesota planned to build a massive health clinic in the area and certain individuals coveted their neighbors’ property to gain the needed “footprint” to build profitable facilities that would service the U of M project.

“Neighbors” claimed that Uncle Bill’s Food Market was a haven for criminals, including prostitutes, and its proprietors were condoning crime. However, a City Pages article pointed out that an undercover officer was unable to gather evidence of such involvement in 45 days of surveillance. The courts have refused to allow the city to close down the business due to criminal activities. So, instead, city officials have gone the inspections route. City inspectors, given limitless powers to find code violations, could condemn the buildings where those businesses were located and thus accomplish the same thing.

Once a building is condemned for structural deficiencies, the city can then require the owner to spend tens of thousands of dollars on structural engineers, architects, and attorneys, to jump through numerous hoops to recover their property. Some, such as the Sanigulars, cannot afford this, having spent their financial reserves on previous inspections exercises.

The impetus for shutting down Uncle Bill’s came when a shooting took place in an apartment building two blocks away on April 30, 2007. The shooter then roamed through the neighborhood. (There was no connection between this incident and anything happening in the grocery store.) A block club meeting was hastily convened.

At this meeting, held on May 3rd, Mayor Rybak, Council member Don Samuels, and former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes ( who is thought to have a financial interest in the building next to Sanigular’s) demanded that city inspectors do something about the grocery store. Fire Department inspectors visited Uncle Bill’s on Monday, May 8th. A placard of condemnation was posted on two doors of the building at 9 a.m., on May 9th. The grocery business had until May 30th to wind down its affairs.

Bill McGaughey noted the irony that Mayor Rybak should be a hawk in closing down businesses for attracting crime. Years ago, his own parents owned a small drug store in a crime-ridden neighborhood, at 816 East Franklin. After Rybak’s father died, his mother carried on the business. One day, after the drug store was robbed, she walked down Franklin Avenue lost in thoughts of despair. A man who was a landlord, named Chuck Mesken, followed her in his car. Eventually Rybak’s mother consented to talk with him about her problems. This man later became her husband. The two raised the three Rybak boys to be law-abiding and productive members of society.

(Suppose that, if instead of compassion, Rybak’s mother had been confronted by an imperious city official who said in words to this effect: “You obviously don’t know what you’re doing. You seem incapable of policing your own business. You are claiming excessive police resources and causing harm to your neighbors. We think you are selling merchandise diverted to criminal use. We’ve reached the limit of what this city can stand.” Then, instead of sending extra police to the Rybak drug store, the city of Minneapolis would have sent building inspectors instructed to find structural deficiencies in the drug-store building so that the city could justify its condemnation. Instead of raising her three sons in relative peace, Mrs. Rybak would then have had to scrape and borrow to find money to hire structural engineers and attorneys to try to save her business. What difference forty years make!)

Those were the days when society had some compassion for persons victimized by crime. The city did not yet blame its small business owners for “condoning” crime in or near the properties where they conducted their business. R.T. Rybak, as mayor, has evidently fallen in with the wrong crowd. He’s fallen in with the vengeful block clubs, the politically connected property acquirers, the eager-beaver bureaucrats, City Council members with Messiah complexes, and self-righteous church social-action groups to deal with the city’s small business owners in a most uncharitable way.

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In the third segment, Patrick Foslien spoke of his experience in suing the city. Some property owners may remember Pat as the person who used to man the scales at the city’s transfer station near Hiawatha and 21st. He had a pony tail then. Pat, unfortunately, was injured on the job; and that’s when his troubles began.

The city of Minneapolis tried to eliminate Pat’s job to avoid liability from the accident. Pat approached some well-known law firms in downtown Minneapolis. One of the attorneys told him they would need $15,000 up front and there were no guarantees that he would win - in fact, it was rather unlikely.

But lawyering is not that much more difficult than pumping gas when you get the hang of it. Pat with the pony tail taught himself to be a lawyer. The process took about ten years. Being a veteran, Pat used the veterans-preference card to advantage. Flying solo, he mastered court procedure. In the end, he beat the city at its own game. Since good news is sometimes hard to come by, the Property Rights group relished his story.

It had been at least ten years since Pat Foslien had come to a meeting of this group. (Last time, when Charlie Disney was the moderator, he got into a heated argument with Susan Young, the city’s solid-waste and recycling department head.) We had to invite him to come up from the audience to tell us what he had been doing for all this time.

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