On Tuesday, January 25, shortly before 6:00 p.m., Marlene Fearing showed up at the Washington County Jail in Stillwater to serve a 30-day contempt-of-court sentence. The 63-year-old grandmother could have avoided the spell in the slammer by paying a $500 fine, but she refused to do so.
Fearing was intent on becoming a martyr for her cause. That cause--as she sees it--is to expose what Fearing alleges is corruption and other improprieties in the tiny town of Lake St. Croix Beach, population 1,140, located 20 miles east of the Twin Cities. It's a prime piece of real estate just south of Interstate 94 and adjacent to the St. Croix River.
"These people have never heard of the Bill of Rights," Fearing says of her many sworn enemies. "They've never heard of federal fair housing laws. They seem to be exempt from the law."
Fearing's incarceration didn't last long. Two days after she checked into jail, according to Washington County, the $500 fine was paid and she was released. "My family had a real concern for my health," she says. "I've got a heart condition. My twin sisters bailed me out."
Fearing's jail stint might be over, but the dispute that landed her there is unlikely to abate any time soon. For more than a decade now, she has been battling with the City of Lake St. Croix Beach and her neighbors in the 16-unit Lake St. Croix Villas development. In the last two years, the dispute has become absurdly contentious and litigious. It has resulted in lawsuits, demands for restraining orders, 911 calls, discrimination complaints, and enough animosity for several seasons of a reality-TV show. The only winners so far have been the lawyers on each side of the quarrel.
"It has just ruined, just eviscerated that subdivision," says Mark Kallenbach, one of Fearing's attorneys. "It's a tragedy. There are no winners. It's terrible."
"This is a mess," adds Jesse Gant, another of Fearing's attorneys. "Most of these people are as old as my mother and they're acting like little kids."
The dispute dates back to 1992, when Fearing first purchased 14-plus acres of land in Lake St. Croix Beach to build a housing development. She formed the Lake St. Croix Villas Homeowners Association and eight two-unit homes were eventually built on the land. The development promised, it would seem, an idyllic lifestyle.
But as Fearing tells the story, city officials immediately began throwing roadblocks in her way. Fearing claims she was unfairly forced to set aside three-plus acres of land for a watershed and that minorities who purchased lots from her were denied building permits. For instance, Lillian Lazenberry, who is black, was twice refused permission to build on her land in 1999. "It was one torpedo after another," Fearing says. "I couldn't get a sense of what it was all about."
So, in 1999, Fearing filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights charging the City of Lake St. Croix Beach with racial and gender discrimination. Two years later she filed another grievance with the state agency laying out additional allegations of civil rights violations.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights initially ruled in Fearing's favor in January 2002, finding probable cause that she had been unlawfully discriminated against. But the agency eventually reversed course, clearing the city of any wrongdoing. "That was the first time I've ever seen anything like that," says attorney Gant of the reversal. Undeterred by the setback, last month Fearing filed a lawsuit in United States District Court alleging that the city has violated federal civil rights laws.
The city is not Fearing's only adversary, however. In 2003, three residents of the Lake St. Croix Villas development--Robert and Arlene Swenson and Mary Parr--filed suit in Washington County District Court charging that Fearing had defrauded them. Basically, the trio alleged that Fearing had advertised the development as being restricted to people 55 and over and then sold lots to people much younger.
In April, Washington County District Court Judge Mary Carlson ruled against Fearing on the case's central argument. She concluded that the developer had indeed marketed Lake St. Croix Villas as a 55-and-up development, and that such an age restriction was perfectly legal. Fearing was also subsequently found in contempt of court for defying a judge's order to quit meddling in the business of the homeowners' association, resulting in the $500 fine or 30 days in jail.
Fearing immediately appealed the Washington County decision. The case is currently pending in the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
The disagreement between Robert Swenson and Fearing has become particularly personal and volatile. As described in a report to the Washington County Sheriff's Office, Fearing charges that her neighbor has attempted to run over both her and her grandson on separate occasions. She's unsuccessfully sought to get a restraining order against him. But her repeated complaints to the Washington County Sheriff's Office have failed to result in any charges against Swenson.
Most of the other parties involved in the dispute aren't talking. Both Lake St. Croix Beach Mayor Laurel March and City Clerk Linda O'Donnell refused to comment for this story, citing the ongoing litigation. Robert Swenson and Parr also declined to speak on the record, referring questions to their lawyer.
"My clients want to live in a peaceful retirement community," insists Jon Kingstad, the attorney representing the Swensons and Parr. "They're retired people. They want to live in peace and quiet."
Fearing is no stranger to controversy. She's been involved in at least a dozen civil lawsuits in Washington County over the last decade. A previous Fearing-planned housing development in Hastings ran off the rails after she made similar discrimination complaints to the Department of Human Rights that were deemed unfounded.
"There seems to be no end to the litigation," Kingstad says. "Every comment that we make seems to create more lawsuits from Marlene Fearing."
At this point it hardly matters who's right or wrong. Bickering and bringing lawsuits has become a way of life for the residents of Lake St. Croix Villas, reaching beyond the primary parties involved, leaving unwitting residents trapped in the middle. Kathryn Smith purchased a home in the development in March 2003. The retired speech pathologist and widow says she immediately sensed trouble when she was given three different directives on who was to collect her homeowners' association fees. But even after the Washington County lawsuit was filed, she initially assumed that the dispute could be resolved amicably.
"In my whole life I have never seen childish behavior like this," Smith says. "This is not adult behavior that is going on here. This is childish behavior."
Smith would like nothing better than to sell her home. But at present it's impossible to get anything close to market value for property in Lake St. Croix Villas. Roughly half of the 16 units are currently unoccupied and the pending litigation would scare off most potential buyers. "It's unbelievable that in the United States of America you could buy a home and not be able to sell it," Smith sighs. "But that's where we sit right now. We can't rent because that's against the bylaws. We can't sell because of the lawsuit."
In other words, the residents of Lake St. Croix Villas are stuck with each other.
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