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Grand Forks city, county at odds over which is responsible for junk complaint

City and county officials are at odds over who is responsible for clearing junked cars from a property just outside the Grand Forks city limits.

Last month, the entities submitted separate requests for an opinion from the North Dakota attorney general in an effort to resolve the matter.

The opinion would clear up who has jurisdiction over the property and has the power to bill the owner for the cleanup costs.

The city does have authority that extends past its limits, but, according to City Attorney Howard Swanson, that power doesn't apply in this case.

"The city does not have the authority to go out and address this problem," he said.

Grand Forks County officials don't see it that way.

"The city has jurisdiction, no question," State's Attorney Peter Welte told the County Commission at its Oct. 15 meeting. At the commission's direction, Welte submitted a request for an opinion to the Attorney General's Office on Oct. 25.

Opposing views

The dispute comes down to who has authority over the area in which the property is located.

Grand Forks' extraterritorial zoning authority extends to two miles outside city limits while police powers can be enforced up to a half-mile from the limits.

Storing junk, trash and junked cars on private property in a way that disrupts public safety or health is illegal, according to city law. The law can be enforced by police or the health department, but not by its zoning department, according to Swanson.

The property in question is outside of the half-mile mark but within the two-mile zone. Its location is not identified in the requests by the city and county, and it has not been named in a formal complaint to either entity.

In his Oct. 18 request, Swanson added he could not find any provisions within state law allowing the city to extend its police powers beyond the half-mile range.

While the city says it has no authority to clear the junk through its zoning code, the county disagrees.

"We're approaching this as a zoning issue," Welte said.

The county's opinion request, written by Assistant State's Attorney Dale Rivard, said the city does have the power to take care of the junk problem under its zoning authority.

"Zoning power means more than simply dividing the land into districts," Rivard wrote. "Zoning power also includes the ability to regulate land."

Since the county believes the city has jurisdiction over the property, Welte said the county questions whether it has authority to act in the city's extraterritorial zone.

A 2004 attorney general opinion referred to in Rivard's letter points to no. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem wrote at that time that a county's zoning authority does not affect any property within the city's zoning authority unless the city has relinquished that power to the county.

Cleanup process

Until the stalemate is resolved, the process for removing junked vehicles from the property is at a standstill.

An attorney general's opinion can take up to 90 days, potentially putting off any cleanup until spring.

The Grand Forks Public Health Department, a city department with a contract for services with the county, has the ability remove junk for either entity.

"We have the authority to clean it up today. We're willing and able and want to do it," said Public Health Director Don Shields, adding the department won't act until the attorney general opinion is received and jurisdiction established.

A formal complaint has not been filed with either the county or the city regarding the property, according to City Planner Brad Gengler. His said his office has only received verbal complaints and questions about the state of the property.

The clarification from the attorney general is needed before the city or county can give the property owner a notice and take the individual to court if he or she does not comply.

If convicted, the owner could be fined up to $1,000 and forced to pay for cleanup costs.

Besides establishing authority, Shields said the clarification also will determine who pays for the cleanup.

"Some of these places cost $5,000 to clean, some cost $25,000 to clean," Shields said.

For example, if the county were to haul off junk only to find out it has no authority to pass the cleanup costs to the owner because of the property's location, it would be stuck footing the bill.

"If we were wrong, we'd be wrong in an expensive way," Welte said.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1108 or send email to