BAKER, Minn. — Michael Wagner said he had no intentions of intruding or trespassing on another person’s property when he set up his mobile home more than two years ago in Baker, an unincorporated Clay County town of about 55 residents.
But over the past year and a half, county officials have told Wagner the back deck attached to his home and his electrical box are on Tim Thompson’s land, despite what his research told him, according to his account.
Wagner told The Forum he's tried the best he can to bring his property into compliance. But after several extensions, the 52-year-old could be sentenced to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine when he appears Monday, April 1, in Clay County District Court.
“How are you going to make anything compliant when you have 60 inches of snow on the ground and the ground is frozen?” Wagner said. “It ain’t going to happen.”
Wagner, who felt he was being singled out, let county officials know other properties in Baker, which sits about 17 miles southeast of Moorhead, could be in violation of planning and zoning regulations.
Several property owners consequently received letters about potential violations this winter, angering them and prompting at least one to come before the County Board of Commissioners on Jan. 22 to ask why it's taken so long to bring Wagner into compliance.
Scott Dahms, who owns property in Baker and received such a letter, did not name Wagner in addressing the board, but said "this individual" has used county resources to “terrorize” residents by looking for potential violations. Dahms declined to speak with The Forum for this story.
Residents have considered retaining counsel against the county for coming after them, Dahms told the board. “Me personally, I’m a pretty mellow guy. But if you start pissing down my back and tell me it’s raining, we’re going to play ball,” Dahms said.
Wagner denied using county resources to terrorize residents. “I’m not trying to harass anyone,” he said.
With claims the county has been selective in enforcing its rules, it decided last year it will look into all possible violations, Assistant County Attorney Anthony Weigel said.
However, the latest planning director has resigned during the months-long dispute, citing a lack of support in enforcing zoning codes. And residents feel they have been drawn into a dispute between two landowners.
“There are a lot of citizens that are being impacted in a negative way because the county has not done its job,” Thompson told the board. He said that's a result of the county's inaction.
Thompson, Dahms and Wagner have all said they fear something violent may happen. Through a public records request, The Forum obtained several documents, including letters to Wagner and residents, to piece together how the dispute unfolded.
Ready for jail
The property that Wagner bought after a tax forfeiture auction did not look pretty. The house needed to be demolished. Grass was shoulder-height, and the lot contained junk and animal carcasses, he said.
He cleaned up the property and said he consulted the county's geographic information system (GIS) maps as well as county officials to make sure he was putting his mobile home in the right place. He moved into the home in October 2016.
In August 2017, then-Planning Director Tim Magnusson sent a letter to Wagner, saying his deck and mobile home did not meet setback requirements and he needed an “after the fact” permit, which was denied in a Sept. 12, 2017, letter. Wagner was told in the September letter he had 30 days to remove the deck and 90 days to remove the mobile home.
Magnusson, who retired in June 2018, told the Planning and Zoning Commission during a Sept. 19, 2017, meeting the county’s GIS maps are for reference purposes only, and the county is not responsible for any inaccuracies.
Through an attorney, Wagner apologized to Thompson, and said he wouldn’t challenge a property survey that was done and wanted to have an open dialogue with Thompson. Thompson declined to speak with The Forum for this story.
Thompson told the planning commission he's tried to be a good neighbor and was not interested in having a dialogue with Wagner. Wagner's lack of due diligence was not his responsibility, he said.
The interaction between him and Wagner has not been pleasant, Thompson said. "Mr. Wagner has established a presence in Baker, and it’s get out of the way or get run over," Thompson said.
County officials have said they can only do so much before a matter like this is turned over to the courts. That’s what happened in October 2017, when Wagner was charged with a side yard setback violation, a misdemeanor. He pleaded guilty in December 2017.
The court gave him nine months to resolve the situation. The court then issued an extension until Monday, April 1, but he told The Forum he wouldn’t be able to meet that deadline due to financial issues and heavy snowfall.
“I don’t know if they are going to put me in jail or not,” he said, noting that he's made arrangements with his employer and is ready to serve time behind bars if needed.
In September, Wagner filed a restraining order against Thompson for alleged threatening behavior, taking photos of him without permission and making unwanted visits to him. A judge dismissed it Jan. 31.
Wagner said he plans to file another restraining order against Thompson.
Planning director resigns
Wagner said he never filed any complaints against his neighbors, but he told Magnusson about potential violations, which the former planning director acknowledged in a Nov. 7, 2017, letter to Wagner.
“If one guy has to be compliant, why not make everyone compliant?” Wagner told The Forum.
Letters were sent to six other property owners this winter regarding potential violations. As of March 12, two were compliant, one needed further investigation, two needed to fill out applications for a permit, and one did not have a determination.
“Why would anybody in that community want to comply with any of this stuff because the county can’t take care of the job they were supposed to do two years ago with this one individual?” Dahms asked the county board.
Former Planning Director Hali Durand, who was hired in October, sent out those letters, but she told The Forum the notifications were at the office before she took over.
Durand resigned March 8. Asked if she left of her own will or if she was told to resign, she declined to comment.
Whether Wagner’s case had anything to do with Durand's departure is unclear. She said she felt there was a lack of support from others to do her job.
“It just really wasn’t a good fit,” she said. “They can say that they want enforcement. But when there is enforcement, then I don’t think they are ready for it.”
Records of Durand’s resignation are not public because they are considered private personnel data, Weigel said in citing Minnesota law. Durand did not face any disciplinary actions before her resignation, according to the county. Emma Notermann is filling Durand’s role in the interim.
The status of other properties has no relevance to Wagner’s case from a criminal standpoint, Weigel said, noting that Wagner has admitted to breaking the law.
“The problem we have had with Mr. Wagner is he has not done anything since he was originally cited for it,” Weigel said. “The problem is it has been one excuse after another.”
Wagner said he doesn’t know if he’ll continue to live in Baker, but he wants to be left alone.
“I just wanted a quiet place to live,” he said.