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Howe properties claimed by county

Grand Forks County officials say property owned by Henry Howe--an attorney who waged a lawsuit against a local grass ordinance--is in financial limbo.

Weeds grow outside of Howe and Seaworth law offices on the corner of Demers and 5th Ave in Grand Forks, N.D. on July 5, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)
Weeds grow outside of Howe and Seaworth law offices on the corner of Demers and 5th Ave in Grand Forks, N.D. on July 5, 2016. (Meg Oliphant/Grand Forks Herald)

Grand Forks County officials say property owned by Henry Howe-an attorney who waged a lawsuit against a local grass ordinance-is in financial limbo.

According to Debbie Nelson, Grand Forks County finance and tax auditor, both Howe's downtown office building at 421 DeMers Ave. and a private residence he owns at 2309 Chestnut St. reverted to county ownership on Monday because of delinquent taxes and fees.

Between both properties, jointly owned by Howe and his wife, Mary E. Seaworth, total overdue funds come to $17,483.70. Another several thousand dollars is due for both properties this Oct. 17, Nelson said, pointing out that those 2015 charges must also be paid to reclaim ownership of the properties. That brings the total bill to more than $20,000.

"They will be sold to the highest bidder the third Tuesday in November if all the taxes (and fees) are not paid," Nelson said Thursday. "Henry Howe has to pay these taxes to get it back in his name, and he can do that prior to the third Tuesday in November."

The overdue taxes and fees on both properties date to 2013. Since then, online county records show only $876 has been paid on the downtown property.

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"Once properties are three years delinquent, the oldest year needs to be paid prior to Oct. 1 each year, otherwise Grand Forks County takes over the property," Nelson explained. This year's seizure of property only occurred late because Oct. 1 was a Saturday, she said.

Howe's back taxes come to light in the immediate aftermath of a failed lawsuit Howe filed against a Health Department employee, both personally and as a representative of the department.

Stemming from a dispute over unmowed grass on the berm near Howe's downtown office-for which the department issued Howe a violation notice earlier this year-Howe argued in his case against what he felt was capricious and unfair application of the city's grass ordinance. He also sought to have a local ordinance regulating grass violations invalidated for unconstitutional vagueness.

Online records list the employee, the Health Department, and the "city and county of Grand Forks" as defendants.

Howe sought damages of $10,000 for the time he spent defending the grass on his berm, plus other damages for injury sustained by his reputation as a result of press on the matter. He has referred to some of the plants on the berm as "wildflowers," and said the berm grew in such a way because he wanted it to do so.

Ultimately, the case was dismissed Sept. 19 for procedural reasons, including Howe's improper naming of a Health Department employee in the lawsuit and his failure to serve the North Dakota attorney general in a case that sought to invalidate a law on constitutional grounds.

The lawn was mowed Monday, with $310 in costs billed as a result.

Howe said Thursday there is no link between his outstanding debt with the county and the lawsuit that was filed-"none whatsoever." He declined to comment on why the taxes had not been paid but said the payment would happen "in due course." "They're payable. You have to pay the taxes before the sale-that's it," Howe said, referring to the upcoming potential auction of the properties. "Only if you haven't paid the taxes before the sale is there a sale."

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Howe's case was dismissed "without prejudice," meaning he could bring the lawsuit once again, and was expected to do so after amending it in accordance with the Sept. 19 dismissal ruling. He said Thursday he still plans to file a new complaint.

"I'm expecting to," he said.

Correction, Oct. 12: 

This post initially misstated the funds Howe would have to pay to reclaim his property prior to Oct. 17. It is his overdue taxes and fees, plus those taxes and fees coming due on Oct. 17. 

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