A black business owner is still contesting $4,000 in zoning citations that Walworth County gave him, saying they were racially motivated, and the county continues to deny the accusations.
John Neighbors of Elkhorn on Feb. 3 filed an appeal of Judge Kristine Drettwan’s July decision that the citations he received for a gathering of more than 200 people on his property in June 2018 were not discriminatory.
The gathering on Neighbors’ property was held in conjunction with a Grateful Dead tribute concert at Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy.
Walworth County officials filed their response to Neighbors’ appeal March 6, arguing that Neighbors never met the standards for proving selective prosecution. Those standards require proving that Neighbors was singled out while others “similarly situated” were not and that the prosecution of Neighbors was based on his race.
Neighbors has cited testimony from several witnesses about how often they saw camping on private property throughout the county over the years.
But the county’s Land Use and Resource Management Department addresses violations through complaints, such as one it received about Neighbors’ gathering.
The examples listed by witnesses were not reported, according to the county’s response. Nor was it clear if the instances they saw occurred on property that fell outside the ordinances’ purview.
The county said Neighbors was cited for having a campground on property zoned A-2 and for having a campground without proper conditional use and approval. That is different from simply camping on someone else’s property, according to the response.
Many examples that witnesses shared were not similar in size or duration to Neighbors’ gathering, which lasted three days, according to the response.
The example most similar to what happened on Neighbors’ property was an event called Wise Fest, but department officials didn’t know about the event until months after it ended. Investigating it later would have been “illogical,” the county’s response stated.
All that means Neighbors and his attorneys did not adequately prove that others who were “similarly situated” escaped citations, the county argued.
In addition, the zoning officer who issued the citations, Nicholas Sigmund, did not know Neighbors was black until after the decision to issue citations, according to the county.
The county contends that when Neighbors pleaded guilty to the six citations—which came after Drettwan’s ruling—he waived his right to appeal.
Neighbors’ side, however, has argued that making everyone endure a court trial to review evidence already shared when the matter of guilt is not really at issue would be “just silly.”
Attorneys representing Neighbors—former Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci and state Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago—responded to the county and reiterated some of their points in a March 19 filing.
The response from Neighbors’ side criticized the department’s poor record-keeping—Post-it notes and “handwritten scribbles”—saying some complaints could have fallen through the cracks.
They also argue that the county ordinance lacks a hard number for how many campers would be illegal on a given property. Saying that Neighbors’ gathering had crossed a line was “legally convenient,” they said.
Neighbors’ most recent filing says the appeals court’s decision is of “grave importance.”
If the evidence they have shared is not enough to prove discrimination, then what is? Neighbors’ attorneys ask. They argue it is not fair to require blatant acts, such as racially charged language, to prove discrimination.
The appeal is under review.