Big Rift in a Small Town: Marion Divided
As elections for mayor and city commission approach, the city of Marion faces an issue that has segregated the community of about 133 residents – an issue
that could easily flow over into Tuesday's elections. The issue: junk vehicles.
Marion resident and business man Larry Alber, owner of Larry's Auto Sales and Service, owns, by some estimates, hundreds of junk vehicles that are stored on lots throughout the city – some on property the city claims Alber doesn't own legally.
Besides being an eyesore, the junk vehicles, because of the manner in which they are stored, are a nuisance to health and safety. Vehicles in the city's right-of way prevented the city from plowing snow and performing other maintenance. The salvage vehicles also pose a physical danger and the vehicles could harbor vermin and other animals, according to Delvin Losing, a Casselton attorney who represents the city in the matter.
Alber, who holds a current North Dakota Salvage Dealer License, contends in court documents that the vehicles are either behind a fence and properly stored, or properly on display for sale or are being worked on at present time.
The fight over the vehicles began in 2003, when the city applied for and was granted a court order from LaMoure District Court demanding Alber clean up his properties.
According to a letter from his then-attorney, Alber complied; he "removed some 52 vehicles from his property. All other vehicles are behind the fence and properly stored." according to the letter.
According to Delvin, Alber essentially "shuffled some stuff around."
In 2012, the City of Marion filed a motion to hold Alber in contempt of court. The lower court upheld the city's claim. Alber appealed the district court's finding to the North Dakota Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court's decision.
Alber's argument, according to court documents, was that he had complied with the earlier order and that the statute of limitations (10 years) had expired on the court's decision. According to Losing, however, the statute of limitations only applies to monetary judgements.
Again in spring 2014, the courts found in favor of the city and ordered Alber to clean up his properties.
Currently, vehicles occupy lots in several parts of the city. Two lots were purchased by Alber, but were never transferred into his name; the city could file for ownership of those lots, according to mayor Gene Rode in a recent interview. Many of the other vehicles are behind solid metal fences.
In one letter from Monty G. Mertz, Alber's former attorney, to the City's then-attorney dated Novvember, 2003, Mertz stated, "Mr. Alber tells me that someone has told him that 'they have a court order to remove all of his vehicles and they have hired a fir to haul away all of his remaining vehicles.' That, of course is not true and there is no such court order."
While the previous court order did not give the city authority to remove the vehicles, the current one does, according to Losing.
"When we initiated this whole legal struggle, we tried in our best effort to compromise. He said, 'Let the courts decide.' The courts have spoken four times now and all four times they said on the city's behalf that the nuisance, junk vehicles should go," said Rode in a recent interview. "I don't know what more we are supposed to do, as a city government, to clean up a small community."
Alber's supporters believe the city is on a vendetta against the man. Several have pointed out at commission meetings and in letters to the editor of local newspapers that other property owners in Marion also store salvage vehicles. In fact, the city, in an effort to clean up the community, sent letters to several residents demanding that their properties be cleared of junk vehicles and other debris.
Brad Rodin, owner of Brad's Body Shop and a member of the Marion City Commission, has salvage vehicles behind a fence on his property. According to Rodin, he plans to clean it up. "I try to keep mine trimmed-up and mowed. We're not just picking on Larry but we had to start somewhere. We had a lot of people that were complaining about stuff across from their houses."
Now Marion stands divided.
"It's getting old," said Rodin. "In a small town, you've got to rely on come-back business. You don't have new people around. It's too bad we had to get to this point."
In Tuesday's election, Alber's son, Jon, is challenging Rode for the office of mayor while Larry Alber's wife, Deb, is vying for a seat on the city commission.
Meanwhile, signs have been placed in front of several homes in Marion, including the homes of long-time residents, that read "House for Sale Pending the Election Outcome.
Editor's note: Larry Alber's attorney was contacted for this article but did not return a call from the T-R.