An Elkhorn business owner is taking his legal fight over $4,000 in Walworth County zoning citations he says were spurred by racism into civil court, according to a lawsuit filed last month against the zoning officer.
An appeals court May 27 denied John Neighbors’ request to reverse Walworth County Judge Kristine Drettwan’s July 2019 decision that there was not enough evidence to show the six citations the county’s Land Use and Resource Management Department, known as LURM, gave him were racist.
The county has denied that racist motivations were behind the citations.
Neighbors, who is Black, filed a lawsuit Sept. 11 in U.S. District Court, Eastern District, in Milwaukee against Nicholas Sigmund, the county zoning officer who issued the citations.
The June 2018 gathering in question ran in conjunction with a Grateful Dead tribute concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy. More than 200 people were on Neighbors’ property, according to previous testimony and court documents.
Sigmund issued Neighbors six citations, two for each day people were staying on his property. The citations were for operating a campground on property zoned A-2 and for lacking a conditional-use permit.
The lawsuit is on the agenda for the Walworth County Board meeting at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13, but as of Thursday, the agenda item was under “communications and matters to be referred” and says, “to be placed on file.”
The lawsuit says Neighbors is seeking compensatory damages for his “emotional, psychological and economic loss,” punitive damages against Sigmund for his “willful, wanton and reckless acts,” and coverage of attorney fees and other costs.
“Sigmund intentionally discriminated against Neighbors on account of his race and denied him equal protection under the law when he issued citations to him that he did not issue to similarly situated white landowners,” the lawsuit states.
“Said violation has caused Neighbors severe and permanent emotional, psychological and economic injuries.”
When the case was in Walworth County Court, Neighbors had to show the citations had a discriminatory effect—that Neighbors was singled out—and a discriminatory purpose—that the county singled out Neighbors because of his race.
Neighbors brought in witnesses from law enforcement and other professions in the county who said camping happens throughout the area and isn’t cited.
But the appellate court decision against Neighbors said it was "not clear” that the examples provided were violating zoning ordinances or that county officials knew about them in time to enforce anything.
The appeals court said pointing out that a Black man was punished with citations in a county with such a small percentage of Black people was an “insufficient basis to infer that Sigmund or LURM was motivated by racial bias.”
Neighbors and his previous attorneys have argued, however, that proving racism shouldn’t require a written racial slur or a Confederate flag hanging in someone’s office.
Neighbors had been represented by former Walworth County District Attorney Dan Necci and state Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, who used to be an assistant district attorney for Walworth County. It appears different lawyers are representing him in the civil court matter.