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Willmar City Attorney looking into legal options for problem house

While Willmar's city attorney looks into legal options regarding a house within the city, desired outcomes from City Council members have amounted to just trying to figure out what can be done. The house is now listed for sale.

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The Willmar city attorney is reviewing legal options for the owner of this duplex along the 900 block of Trott Avenue Southwest in Willmar. The building has been the location of at least 40 arrests since 2013, according to Willmar Police Department. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The Willmar City Council voted unanimously on Monday to have City Attorney Robert Scott look into possible legal actions against a homeowner on the 900 block of Trott Avenue Southwest.

The homeowner is not accused of any crimes, but since 2013, at least 40 arrests have occurred at the house, mostly for drug-related charges and probation violations, according to Willmar Police Chief Jim Felt. An arrest for a felon in possession of a firearm also took place at the residence.

Split into a duplex, the house sits next to Bob Enos, who initially led the charge, along with other neighborhood residents, to evict the homeowner by asking Kandiyohi County Attorney Shane Baker to declare the house a public nuisance, which could possibly shut down the house for a year if the homeowner does not enter and follow an agreement with the court to cease the activities, referred to as abatement.

Baker had previously said he was considering legal options Enos presented to him but did not reply to a question via email about whether his office is still considering that process. Baker did write that the city has taken action regarding the matter.

Enos and other neighbors took their complaints to the Willmar City Council's Community Development Committee on July 27 and that body's recommendation to send the matter to the city attorney was approved by the full council on Monday.

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Scott told the West Central Tribune that it’s not unusual for a city to look into declaring a property a public nuisance, and if the city goes forward with the process, there are remedies in place.

“It’s up to us to review the statute and determine if it’s in violation,” Scott said.

According to the homeowner, no one from the city has contacted her regarding the public nuisance investigation.

The homeowner requested her name not be used. As she has not been charged with a crime nor is she the subject of any current civil action and no city official has cited her by name, the West Central Tribune is not naming her for this story.

She said she has evicted the problem tenants, her two sons and a grandson, who resided in the bottom portion of the duplex, and that she wished the city had contacted her to see what she was doing about the problem.

“And my house is being put on the market. I don’t know what else they want me to do,” she said.

As of Thursday, the house is listed for sale, according to an online realty listing.

According to Willmar City Administrator Brian Gramentz and Chief Felt, the Police Department has been in contact with the property owner about the ongoing issues. Felt said that officers in the past have recommended she evict the problem tenants.

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Gramentz questioned the need for the city to contact the property owner prior to enlisting the city attorney as she must be aware of the type of activities taking place.

"There has been nothing from any other department of the city," Gramentz wrote via email. "The first contact may be by staff, but it would come after the City Attorney made a report to the City Council and then the City Council instructing the City Attorney and staff how they want to proceed. Who the first non-police contact is yet to be determined, if a contact is made at all."

Scott said he’s hoping that his office will be able to present findings at the council's next meeting, Aug. 17

According to Gramentz, the council may vote on action or may decide not to proceed at all by simply not taking a vote.

"If no one makes a motion, the issue dies," Gramentz wrote.

The Willmar Police Department has also talked to residents in the area in regard to the house, according to Felt.

Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said he asked Gramentz if anyone had contacted the homeowner but said he did not get an answer.

“I think probably the solution here would have been a simple phone call and we probably wouldn’t have had all of this happen,” Calvin said. “But that’s behind us at this point.”

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Enos responded to questions sent via email from the West Central Tribune on his Facebook page instead, stating that he has not talked to the homeowner, citing concerns about law enforcement actions that have taken place at the residence over the years.

Enos also questioned whether or not the problem tenants have actually moved out but did write that he saw trucks packed with boxes over the weekend.

Enos wrote that he agrees with the process the city is currently undertaking, citing unanimous votes in both the Community Development Committee and the City Council to move forward with the process.

“I have complete confidence that both the city attorney and the city's police chief will conclude that the evidence of a public nuisance is absolutely overwhelming,” Enos wrote on his Facebook page.

City Council member Fernando Alvarado, whose ward includes the house in question, said Enos has been the one to do the leg work researching the topic and possible courses of action.

Council member Shawn Mueske, a committee member, directed questions regarding the committee's recommendation to Rick Fagerlie, the committee chair, or Vicki Davis, the committee vice chair, for an official committee response.

Neither Fagerlie nor Davis responded to a request for comment by the deadline for this story. Council member Kathy Schwantes, the fourth member of the committee, also did not respond.

There was no discussion of the matter during the Aug. 3 council meeting. The full council approved the committee's recommendation.

During the July 27 Community Development Committee when its members unanimously voted to have the city attorney to look into legal remedies, Schwantes raised the issue of possible unintended consequences of pursuing this path.

"We now know where this person lives, but if they move to another location in the community, we're starting from ground zero," Schwantes said, adding she would feel comfortable with the city attorney reviewing the issue.

During the meeting, Davis signaled that that one of the residents, Matthew Rorvig, 31, who is a level three sex offender, being forced out of his home would improve the situation.

"If we get him out of there, there aren't that many places where he can live, so that can help a lot," Davis said. "I think just having them dispersed would help the situation a lot and I agree we need to take care of it as soon as we can."

According to Felt, Rorvig registered with law enforcement this week and listed his address as homeless.

Felt said that he’s not on house arrest so Rorvig is able to move freely throughout the community, but being homeless does make it more difficult to keep track of him, even though he is required to check in weekly with law enforcement.

“We can’t say for sure we know where he’s hanging his hat at any given time,” Felt said. “It does make it a little more difficult for us.”

During the committee meeting, Mueske said he's talked with people in the neighborhood and there's no political agenda regarding their issues with the house, citing an agreement between neighboring homeowners that the house has "a lot of bad behavior coming out of it."

Alvarado said the council is just trying to figure out the best course of action.

"Sometimes you don't know what is going to happen by an action and that's why you want to speak to counsel and figure out what could happen," Alvarado said. "There's a million guesses as to what could happen, what did happen, what has happened. I don't know that, I don't have a crystal ball."

The homeowner questioned some of the accusations that have been made, saying that accusations of illegal guns being found on the property along with large amounts of drugs are not accurate.

“I understand their concerns about what happened. I don’t think they realize what it’s like to deal with loved ones who are addicted to drugs and are fighting addiction,” she said.

Felt said to his knowledge that the amount of drugs found in the house would be more likely for personal use, though some low-level drug dealing may have taken place.

“The concerns from the neighbors and some of the behavior that even our officers have observed over there would appear to be some transactions taking place, both buying and selling, but nothing to indicate a large quantity,” Felt said.

Calvin said communication with a clear intent of desired outcomes would make a big difference regarding the current situation and that he doesn’t support the current actions being taken, including possible evictions.

“The problem with that then becomes that now we just moved that to some other place within the community where the police aren’t aware of it and it just makes added work for our police force,” Calvin said.

Calvin blamed some of the problems on a court system that isn’t taking harsher actions against people for law enforcement arrests.

“That’s the problem we have here is that it’s catch and release,” Calvin said. “It’s kind of like going fishing, until you’ve been caught so many times, you get released again.”

Calvin said that some council members met with some concerned community members, whom he called “a couple of squeaky wheels,” and listened to them against what probably would have been advice from legal staff.

“So now we’ve got a sex offender, we’ve got drug dealers, dispersed within our community. And now we’re going to have to track them. It’s going to take a lot more time,” Calvin said. “ I did not support this at all.”

Scott, the city's attorney, did signal during the initial committee meeting that the abatement process could move forward.

"I think Mr. Enos gave a pretty good overview of how it would be used in a case like this," Scott said during the meeting. "I obviously have not reviewed all of the evidence, but from my understanding, there does appear to be plenty of evidence that the house on this property has been used in a way that could be considered a public nuisance under the statute."

Calvin also cited concerns about this process becoming normalized within Willmar.

“Are we going to do this now with landlords that don’t get along with their tenants? So a tenant can now call a couple of council members, they’ll get together and say we’re gonna kick people out of their homes?” Calvin said.

“We opened a huge can of pandoras by acting on this (Monday) night, in my opinion,” Calvin said.

Alvarado said they're not trying to end-run anyone and are attempting to pursue proper legal paths.

"We're not doing this willy nilly, I don't think," Alvarado said. "I think we're being thoughtful and getting the answers and trying to do it properly. We're not going to just do it improperly. We're just asking the question."

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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