SHOW LOW—The built-in tension between private property rights and the regulatory reach of a local municipality was in full view at the Show Low Municipal Court last week when the court called to order the hearing in the case of City of Show Low vs. Joy Owens and her LLC, Mountain Lane Holdings. The case involves a civil, non-criminal dispute over the use of land bordering Show Low Creek, located in the 1600 block N. 6th Street and 900 block of E. Huning in Show Low. The hearing, held Aug. 27, didn’t conclude that day, and picks up again today; presiding is retired (now pro-tem) Judge Stephen Price.
Joy Owens is 90 years old and appeared without counsel. The city is represented by F. Morgan Brown. In her opening remarks, Owens told Judge Price that her family bought the 40+ acre parcel from the Santa Fe Railroad about one hundred years ago, and that she has “God-given rights” to the property that “the city has no control over.” The courtroom was filled with her supporters who occasionally laughed, chuckled, clapped, and gave thumbs-up signs and general harrumphs during her remarks.
The judge invited the group to take any comments outside.
Regarding the parcel at issue, the county designated it as agricultural land in 1913 and the City of Show Low annexed it in 1974. Ever since, the city and Owens have been at loggerheads over what kind of activities should be allowed there. And there have been a number of them.
For example in 1997, the city wanted to expand Central Avenue and offered to buy part of the land to accomplish that. Owens refused. The city threatened to condemn it through its eminent domain powers; Owens jeered at Mr. Brown, sayng that the city’s representatives at the time of this kerfuffle included “one of your relatives.” The parties settled that dispute, with Owens accepting $185,000 in exchange for the land needed for the expansion.
Then in 1998, Owens asked for and received a change of of zoning to “industrial” because she planned to start a shed-building business. That type of zoning allows for a single “caretaker’s” residence which Owens created by putting an 18 foot by 34 foot quanset hut on it, and connecting it to the city sewer system; all without permits, and without paying a sewer hook-up fee or monthly sewer fees. She has since paid the hook-up fee. The hut happens to be in a flood zone and a floodplain, says the city.
As part of her shed building operation, Owens installed modular storage sheds on the property. Only problem was, by 2003, the storage sheds had satellite dishes on them, smoking wood stove chimneys, BBQs, kids’ bicycles outside and even Christmas decorations. The “no trespassing” signs Owens put up prevented city inspectors from going on the property, they say, but they took plenty of pictures from outside and from the air. The city sent to Owens a “cease or desist” order, which apparently went nowhere.
In 2013 Owens once again applied for and received a change in the zoning. By ordinance, the parcel was then designated as a commercial property suitable for a mobile home park, and once a conditional use permit (CUP) is issued, says the city, it would be good to go.
But Owens didn’t get a conditional use permit and on dates unknown, five mobile home appeared on the property which now has seven sewer hook-ups, and a septic tank system. It’s the county which permits septic tanks and there is no record of that type of permit being issued, says the city. And septic tanks in a flood zone spells bad news because a flood could carry septic water into the clean water system that resident use to drink, bathe and cook.
In 2016 Owens transferred the property to an LLC which she controls; thus the presence of the defendant LLC in this case.
Then there was the fire.
On March 16, 2017, fire units responded to the 6th street location; specifically, to unit “B” to put out a fire. Seems a child had thrown a piece of clothing over a gas valve in a laundry area and when she retrieved it, accidentally opened the valve. The resulting fire was put out, no one was hurt, and officials conducted an inspection.
According to testimony, they found a lot of “life safety issues,” involving electrical systems, venting of appliances, and clear exits from bedrooms, among other things.
When the city’s counsel asked that the report be admitted in evidence, Owens called it “paperwork crap,” “a bunch of nonsense,” and mumbled something about “communists.” That was right after she sneered at Judge Price that he is “not my superior,” which to that, the judge agreed. It might be noted that the Canons of Judicial Ethics require a judge to be “patient, dignified and courteous.” This judge apparently knows that.
The hearing resumes September 10.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org