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Zachmeier lawsuit against Rugby First, City dismissed

By Sue Sitter - | Oct 3, 2020

Northeast District Court Judge Richard Hagar has dismissed a civil suit filed by Craig and Jennifer Zachmeier against nonprofit organization Rugby First, the City of Rugby, Mayor Susan Steinke and 11 other defendants.

The judgment noted the Zachmeiers had filed the complaint Dec. 12, 2019, seeking temporary restraining orders and temporary injunctions against “development that would impact ‘9th Street SE,” and “development requiring public meetings, a water shed and hydraulic study and study of city’s infrastructure”

Hagar wrote in the judgment the Zachmeiers had also sought temporary restraining orders and temporary injunctions against development of outlots in extraterritorial zones located just outside Rugby, “decreeing them null and void.”

The judgment also sought a temporary restraining order and temporary injunction against “any actions by the City of Rugby until a ‘legally appointed’ planning and zoning commission meets.”

Hagar denied a motion for another temporary restraining order against Rugby First in January. Hagar wrote of the previous motion, “The plaintiffs’ position is that the recording of the outlots, the access easement and the warranty deed which have already taken place, are now permanent and constitute an illegal taking. There is also another public meeting scheduled, which will, if not stopped, cause further damages to the plaintiffs.”

Hagar said the Zachmeiers had not made a case for the order to be issued.

Rugby First, Brad Wangler and Gary and Helen Laughridge, whose property would be developed for a proposed community center, filed a motion to dismiss the suit in May.

In his decision to dismiss the case Sept. 16, Hagar said that although Rugby has a zoning ordinance that extends to regions outside the city, no ordinance exists that would apply to extraterritorial subdivisions, or land divided for development at any point in time according to Chapter 40-48 of the North Dakota Century Code.

The judgment also said the Zachmeiers “have also made claims sounding of fraud, arguing that several of the named defendants were aware that the planning and zoning commission denied approval of the plats on two occasions. The Laughridge defendants, however, were never required to see city approval to subdivide the lots.”

“Based on the plaintiffs’ complaint, it would appear the planning and zoning commission acted appropriately in denying the requests for approval of the plats if they did not conform to the city’s regulations. Because approval was never necessary for the subdivisions, there was no fraud involved with the Laughridge defendants then gifting the property to Rugby First,” Hagar wrote.

Hagar said the Zachmeiers’ “other generalized accusations of collusion, bad faith and oppression are not pled with sufficient factual allegations to survive the motion to dismiss.”

Hagar added the Zachmeiers’ claims pertaining to an improperly seated planning and zoning commission “had no connection to their alleged harm” due to the fact the commission’s approval of plats on the Laughridge land was not necessary.

“Plaintiffs seek injunctions to prevent development of the outlots which may never occur,” Hagar said. “The outlots remain subject to the city’s zoning regulations, should they be developed in the future.”

The Rugby Park Board and Roger Sitter, two of the defendants named in the Zachmeiers’ suit, negotiated a separate settlement.

Hager also denied a bid by Wangler to seek Rule 11 sanctions, which cover improperly filed lawsuits and would have resulted in an order for plaintiffs to cover defendants’ attorney fees if successful.

Kathleen Murray, attorney for the Zachmeiers, emailed a statement on the dismissal to the Tribune and other area media outlets.

“The lawsuit brought by the Zachmeiers was about protection of the City of Rugby, and not about stopping the development of the Laughridge’s and Rugby First property,” Murray wrote. “The protections included: to ensure correctly conducted development to safeguard neighboring properties and the City from future surface water runoff affecting the Wentz canal; to assure that a straight road (9th Street SE) would be connected to the golf course road without obstruction and for ease of use; to protect public interests in public property; and to bring public attention and transparency to the future development of the Rugby First property.”

“The Zachmeiers sought a neutral fact finder for those reasons and protections. The Zachmeiers were pleased that the court found that the lawsuit had merit, and denied sanctions and attorney’s fees, as were requested by select defendants,” the statement added.

Murray added, “The Zachmeiers helped to protect neighboring property owners and the City from possible watershed related to development flooding, correcting an improperly seated planning and zoning board, and correcting an improperly issued access easement. The Zachmeiers have faith that moving forward, public officials will enforce the law, and continue making improvements to help with the future development of the City. It is now up to the members of Rugby First and the community to work together to properly explore the development of a community center to benefit the Rugby Community.”

Stephanie Steinke of Rugby First also responded to the lawsuit’s dismissal.

“We are very happy with the Judge’s ruling,” Steinke wrote. “We didn’t even get to the discovery and evidence phase of the suit because it was dismissed after the first hearing. Rugby First was dismissed as well as G&H Enterprises as well as personal defendants Brad Wangler and Gary & Helen Laughridge. Judge Hagar’s decision pointed out that the Zachmeier’s constitutional rights were not violated, development had not begun so no harm had occurred, the property is subject to all zoning rules before development could ever begin anyway, and absolutely no evidence for fraud or collusion was even provided by the plaintiff. The judge also ruled that the City of Rugby does not have jurisdiction over the zoning in the extraterritorial areas anyway, as they have not expanded their ordinance to do so, so City approval was not even required.”

“We look forward to putting this behind us and working toward our goal of a multi-use year-round community-use facility that is available to all citizens and groups in town. We are very grateful for the generous land donation from the Gary and Helen Laughridge family, as well as the support we’ve received from the citizens of our community during the last ten months,” Steinke added. “We’re disappointed that we had to engage in this lawsuit so early in our work, but happy that we’ve been completely dismissed of any wrongdoing, but it has brought us closer together and strengthened our commitment to getting it done for Gary and Helen and the community. In the next few months we’ll be working toward our goal of privately fundraising to reach our goal.”

Roger Sitter of the Rugby Park Board declined to comment.

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