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Table set in Watson for legal fight; city wants producer to dismantle growing area, citing a violation of city ordinances

WATSON -- The red-globed tomatoes that Aziz Ansari raises are ripe for the picking, and his cucumbers ready for the slicing.

The table in Watson is set for a legal fight.

The city of Watson is going forward with a lawsuit that would require Ansari to dismantle the four hoop structures in which he raises his roadside produce along Minnesota Highway 7 in this community of slightly more than 200 people.

"We reached a point of impasse and couldn't close the deal,'' said the city's attorney, Robert Alsop, of the law firm Kennedy and Graven, Minneapolis. Along with confirming that negotiations in the dispute between the city and Ansari have ended, Alsop said the city would again proceed with its lawsuit against him.

The lawsuit charges that Ansari's four plastic-covered hoop structures violate city ordinances. It also charges that city ordinances prohibit him from selling the vegetables raised in them on his residential property.

Ansari disputes that he is in violation of the ordinances. He has divided the corner property into two tax parcels, and said the lots offer ample space to meet city ordinances regulating the number of secondary buildings and the percent of area they may occupy. He claims the hoop structures are raised beds, not buildings that fall under the city's building ordinances.

He also counters that the city has no legal authority to prohibit him or anyone else from selling produce on their property.

Most of all, Ansari charges that he is being treated unfairly.

"All I'm asking is for equal rights. They should treat everybody equal,'' said Ansari.

He claims that he is being singled out for prosecution due to his dark skin. To make his point, he maintains a Web site on which he has posted a collection of photographs. They show a variety of activities in the community that he claims violate city ordinances, but for which no enforcement actions have been initiated.

His collection of photographs show nearly an entire city block within the city limits in which the land is tilled and used to raise corn and soybeans. The landowner, a longtime farmer, told Ansari that he has never been ordered to obtain a permit; nor would he consider asking for one from the city. Just a short walk from Ansari's roadside stand, another resident has used vehicles for sale alongside the highway, two of them without engines. No permits have ever been issued for the roadside car lot, said Ansari.

Elsewhere in town, Ansari has taken photographs of lots where only garages or sheds are standing, allegedly in violation of a city ordinance requiring that secondary buildings be allowed only on lots with residences.

Ansari said he is prepared to tell the court that the city is "cherry picking'' in selecting him for prosecution.

He also believes the court of public opinion will agree with him, pointing to a petition drive last year that collected 115 signatures in his support.

He has tracked the city's legal bills for the past two years and tallied its legal expenses to the law firm of Kennedy and Graven at more than $32,000. Yet he said the city has not retained the Minneapolis law firm to enforce the law against others: He said there was an alleged assault at the Goose Bar in Watson earlier this year, but the city was advised to find a different law firm to prosecute the matter.

The city's attorney steadfastly denies that the city has singled out Ansari. Alsop said the city has been prosecuting other violations in the community. It cannot prosecute all of the alleged violations all at one time, he said, adding that it has no obligations to do so in that manner either.

Ansari is without legal representation. A farm organization based in St. Paul initially took up his case, but said it did not have the resources to continue.

Former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug took up his case pro bono, but withdrew as counsel earlier this year. Lillehaug had negotiated a possible agreement with the city that would have called for Ansari to dismantle two of the four raised beds.

But Ansari said the city also countered with a proposal that would have forced him to remove the farmer's market sign, given the city ultimate say on where he could locate a table to accept "goodwill donations'' for his produce, and required that he remove the plastic hoops during the non-growing season.

Ansari said there is an irony in all of this: A Hmong woman from St. Paul came and toured his hoops, and now has received grant funds to build the same and promote local food production in her urban neighborhood.

He argues that communities both large and small should be encouraging local food production and the very activity for which he faces a lawsuit.

"My aim is to bring this to the attention of the people,'' said Ansari.

No court date has been set for the lawsuit.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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