There is no evidence the zoning citations Walworth County gave an African American business owner last year were motivated by race, a judge ruled Monday.
John Neighbors, Elkhorn, claimed the $4,000 in fines the county gave him in June 2018 were “very unjust” and racist because of how rarely such citations are given to others for similar violations.
The county fined him for not having a conditional-use permit when he hosted a private event on his Elkhorn property during a concert at Alpine Valley Music Theatre.
Walworth County Judge Kristine Drettwan in her decision Monday said the examples entered into evidence of those who went uncited were not similar enough to prove the county Land Use & Resource Management Department zoning officer singled out Neighbors.
After Drettwan’s decision, Neighbors pleaded guilty to the six citations—two for each day he held the camping event. One of his lawyers then asked Drettwan to pause payment on them pending an appeal. She said she would do so after an appeal is filed.
Neighbors’ attorneys are former Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci and state Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, who used to be an assistant district attorney for Walworth County.
The lawyers said what Neighbors did was “rampant” in Walworth County. Enforcement, on the other hand, was nonexistent—they argued no other Walworth County resident was cited for such an offense in more than a decade.
They asked the court to dismiss the citations on the basis of selective prosecution and brought witnesses from law enforcement who said they’ve long seen such camping on private property left alone.
The county, meanwhile, argued the citations came after officials received a complaint about the event. They denied that Nicholas Sigmund, the zoning officer who issued the citations, had any racist motivations.
Lee D. Huempfner, the lawyer representing the county, said they cannot drive around looking for all violations of various regulations, so they have to operate from complaints.
It was wrong to compare Neighbors having more than 200 people on his property for three days to one person having a camper on a property, he said.
“They can throw around all the personal attacks on Mr. Sigmund that they want,” Huempfner said. “But they’ve got absolutely no evidence to support that he made any decision based on race.”
Drettwan agreed that one example of an event Neighbors brought up for his defense was similar, but the county did not find out about it until after the event was over, which is not what happened in Neighbors’ case.
Neighbors came under an “unfortunate circumstance” after someone called in a complaint, a zoning officer saw it and gave the citations, the judge said.
“There’s no proof that it was some sort of select prosecution,” she said. “Rather, you just were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”