Wisconsin Spotlight | Dec. 18, 2020
Too many beehives, a flower shelf, tall grass, an old barn too close to the property line, a small farm stand: These are just a few things that the Town of Eagle is threatening to fine Mallory Meadows Farm over. All the petty infractions could add up to a $20,000 bill for the just-under-four-acre farm in southeast Wisconsin. But the owners have powerful reasons to fight back: their rights under the U.S. Constitution.
A few years ago, Erica and Zach Mallory thought they had found the perfect place to fulfill their dreams of operating a small farm. While both still work full-time, they’ve already had some success as farmers and were recognized by a national organization that highlights veteran-owned farms (Zach served in the Coast Guard). But recently that dream has turned into a nightmare courtesy of the Eagle town board, its code enforcers, and a private law firm hired by the town.
In recent years, Erica has become more civically engaged. She was upset about the way the town board was treating one of her neighbors. She regularly attended board meetings and spoke out on Facebook. That was when the code inspectors showed up.
The inspectors threw the book at the Mallorys. Mallory Meadows is a working farm and Erica and Zach had some projects in mid-construction that the inspectors declared out of code. They also had a small greenhouse and the farm stand, both of which were considered over the limit for structures allowed on their property. Their barn, which had been built by a previous owner, was suddenly discovered to be too close to the property line. The town even cited the Mallorys for not having copies of permits from the previous owner. But such permits should be kept by the town, not property owners.
One member of the town board told the Mallorys they had “ticked off all the board members with [their] meeting comments and on [F]acebook,” and “that wasn’t good because the board members voted with emotion” to pursue enforcement. But being ticked off is not just a bad reason to cite the Mallorys; it’s also unconstitutional.
Like Erica and Zach, Annalyse and Joe Victor also believed they’d found their perfect home in the Town of Eagle. Before they bought their nearly 10 acres of rural property, Joe, a truck driver, noticed that the previous owner had parked his large trucks on the land. Reasonably believing they could do the same, and, after speaking with the neighboring property owners, the Victors bought the property and Joe began parking his trucks there. That is, until the town cited the Victors for multiple violations related to their trucks.
The Victors made every effort to come into compliance as quickly as possible, but their efforts weren’t good enough for the town. The town filed a complaint to enforce the fines in court, where an $87,900 judgment was entered against the Victors without their knowledge since the town did not properly notify the couple of the hearing. The town’s attorney even went so far as to ask the judge to threaten Annalyse with up to six months in jail if the Victors failed to promptly pay every dollar. This judgment, which far exceeds the Victors’ ability to pay, now hangs over their head, preventing them from obtaining a mortgage so that they can move away from the town and make a fresh start.
While the town cited the Mallorys and the Victors for different violations and had different motivations for targeting each couple, the couples have one thing in common: the town relied on the Municipal Law & Litigation Group to enforce these violations. In the Mallorys’ case, the firm warned the couple that the town will only settle the enforcement action out of court.
Read more at Forbes.
Andrew Wimer is an Assistant Communications Director at the Institute for Justice (IJ), a public interest law firm.