An African American business owner who claims Walworth County slapped him with zoning citations because of his race called the citations “very unjust” Monday in Walworth County Court.
John Neighbors, 37, was fined $4,000 in June 2018 for not having a conditional-use permit while hosting a private event at his Elkhorn property during a concert at the Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy.
Neighbors’ attorneys, former Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci and state Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, filed a motion to dismiss the citations for selective prosecution of “broad” ordinances in January.
They filed a notice of claim with Walworth County in October, seeking $500,000 for emotional injury and $3 million in punitive damages. The Walworth County Board denied the claim in December.
Necci and Horlacher say what their client did is “widespread” and “rampant” throughout the county and that enforcement is nonexistent.
No other Walworth County resident has been cited in the past 10 years for hosting campers on private property without obtaining a conditional-use permit, the county says.
County officials maintain the citations were given after they got a complaint about the event and were not racially motivated.
During Monday’s hearing on the motion to dismiss, Judge Kristine Drettwan modified Neighbors’ attorneys’ request for a subpoena seeking all Walworth County’s Sheriff’s Office records pertaining to camping incidents.
She confined the subpoena to records kept in the county’s ProPhoenix system—a data-storage program that includes recorded calls, reports and notes from all sheriff’s office dispatches—with variations on the word “camping.”
The county must provide the records by June 10. Drettwan said she will rule on the motion at the next hearing at 1:15 p.m. July 22.
Necci called several witnesses Monday, including Linn Police Chief James Bushey and former sheriff’s office Detective Tina Winger. Both said they have witnessed camping on private property, either personally or while on duty.
James Langnes, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who grew up in Delavan, testified that he has seen campers on private property while assisting Walworth County law enforcement with drug operations around Alpine Valley. He also has camped himself.
“I wasn’t aware it was something you could be cited for until this scenario,” Langnes said.
Robyn Smith, who owns and operates Gypsy Soul Food Truck, testified that she has served food at about 15 music festivals on private property in Walworth County over the past six years.
Smith said she was at Neighbors’ gathering in 2018, and she said it was similar to others she had attended. It was the only one where law enforcement showed up, she said.
Nicholas Sigmund, a senior zoning officer for the Walworth County Land Use and Resource Management Department, issued Neighbors two citations for each of the event’s three days.
Necci asked Sigmund about other possible camping violations in the past 10 years on private properties in the county, based on complaints he obtained through an open-records request. Some complaints were about house trailers or people living in campers.
Sigmund testified that he investigated complaints and issued warnings on some occasions. He said he never cited property owners for violations—except for Neighbors.
Sigmund called Neighbors’ event a “large-scale” event that included pull-behind campers, motor home campers and about 20 cars.
Necci asked Sigmund why he did not give Neighbors a warning.
“The scale of the event, the possibility of it reoccurring,” Sigmund responded. “… If I just warned people every time this went on, it would just move around to a different parcel from weekend to weekend.”
Neighbors testified that Sigmund was “aggressive” when discussing the violations. He called the citations unjust because of how widespread camping events are in the county.
He said he invited only people he knew and their friends. He imposed strict rules on alcohol and fires, and all the guests were “very mild,” he said.
”Everyone was very conditioned to this type of setting,” Neighbors said.