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Grower says attempts at resolution with city have fallen of deaf ears

WATSON -- The situation between vegetable grower Aziz Ansari and the city of Watson is a long way from where it was earlier in the summer, when both sides of the conflict said they intended to reach a resolution through negotiation.

The city has now taken legal action to force Ansari to remove hoop structures from his property.

Ansari said negotiations never took place.

He also claims that the city has continued to ignore requests from his attorneys to answer their questions about the city's ordinances.

He charges that the city's action is discriminatory against him and motivated by racism. "This is about harassment,'' said Ansari in an interview the day after the meeting.

His attorneys charge that the city is "stretching" its ordinance by describing the hoop structures as buildings subject to the city's building code and its standards, such as a minimum roof load-bearing capacity.

The hoop houses consist of 18- to 24-inch raised beds of soil enclosed with bent PVC pipe that is usually covered by plastic sheets. Ansari said he removed the plastic earlier this summer to show a good faith effort to meet the city's concerns, despite the fact that its removal has harmed the vegetables' productivity.

Two of the hoop structures are 96 feet long by 6 feet wide, while the third is 90 feet long by 6 feet wide.

The city charges that they violate city ordinance in that they don't meet the city's building code and a requirement limiting enclosed structures to no more than 25 percent of a residential lot. The city also alleges that Ansari failed to obtain a permit for them.

Attorney Jennifer Jambor counters that the hoop structures cannot be likened by the city to a glass-enclosed greenhouse or other type of building. In written correspondence with the city's attorney, Robert Alsop of the Twin Cities law firm Kennedy and Gravens, she charges that the city's definition of a building is "overly broad and vague." The city is "acting arbitrarily and inconsistent" in applying its ordinances against Ansari while ignoring violations elsewhere in the community.

"The city is not at liberty to cherry-pick which residents it wishes to apply its ordinance to,'' wrote Jambor. "The ordinances must apply equally to all.''

Ansari also charges that even if the hoops are considered enclosed structures, measurements of his triangular-shaped, corner property and the hoops show that they meet the 25 percent limit with room to spare. Also, he said the city cannot issue or demand permits when it does not have a licensed building inspector; has not adopted the state building code; and is incorporated and independent of county building regulations.

He also points to a $25 check dated Nov. 7, 2007, which he said he presented to the city for a permit. It was returned to him by the city on March 27 with no explanation.

Ansari and Jambor have documented that the city of Watson revised the minutes of meetings at which his situation was discussed. The minutes of a Nov. 21, 2007, zoning commission meeting were changed from a statement that Ansari "didn't need a permit'' for his first hoop structure to the statement: "did need a permit.''

The minutes for a Nov. 21, 2007, meeting in which the commission went into a closed session were similarly revised, according to documents presented by Jambor to the city attorney. The original minutes stated that the commission "asked residents to leave." The minutes were subsequently revised to state: "asked residents ... if they would mind leaving.''

"It appears that the city purposefully altered the minutes to strengthen its legal position in the case,'' charged Jambor. The closed meeting probably violates the state's Open Meeting Law as well, she stated.

Calls to attorneys representing the two sides on Thursday were not returned.