We return to the ongoing story of the Ferndale Clock Tower.
In early July, I accompanied Art and Margaret, the owners and builders of this nearly-completed landmark, to a courtroom on the second floor of the Whatcom County Court House. The City of Ferndale vs. The Rojszas, Superior Court–Take Three.
From time to time over the past few years, I’ve overheard people from Ferndale say (with many variations), “What’s with the people who own that tower house thing on Main Street? Do they think they can trash their place and create an eyesore for the rest of us? Why isn’t the City doing something about it? It’s a travesty!”
Well, the travesty is that the City is actually the cause. The city staff, the Mayor, the City’s Attorney and possibly the City Council have colluded to block the Rojszas at every turn. The motives behind their obstruction are not clear, but one suspects a combination of anti-immigrant sentiment and a desire to drive out, by whatever means, a perceived obstacle to their plan for commercial development of that part of Main Street. It has a very similar feel to a situation unfolding in the King County Superior Court in a homeowner’s suit against the City of SeaTac (see (https://www.wethegoverned.com/city-of-seatac-slammed-with-18-3-million-jury-verdict-city-attorneys-guilty-of-deception/)
Although the details of a situation like the Rojszas’ are, in themselves, tedious, it is the full weight of all these small facts that provide the heft of the absurdity (and worse, dishonesty and deception) we endure as citizens. Small town governments like that of Ferndale are wasting enormous amounts of energy and anger, so much better directed at true injustices (starting say, with Global Warming), in carrying out vendettas against citizens who threaten the status quo by creating something new. It is an age-old phenomenon. Yet in a world where the remedy for hate is more hate and for violence, more violence, it is important to acknowledge those places where generosity could reproduce itself prolifically. Although people like the Rojsza’s may end up in this country in a search for a more freedom of expression and movement, attempts like those of the Ferndale City government did not disappear with the advent of American Democracy, what is commonly referred to as a “free society”. In fact, they seem to have become increasingly prevalent as its citizens become less financially secure and more fearful of “outsiders”.
On that Friday afternoon, after this third episode of court experience, Art and Margaret and I were chatting outside on the steps of the courthouse. Inside, the City had continued to assert that the Rojszas were not cooperating with timely and compliant completion of their Clock Tower. Trying to celebrate the small victories their attorney had eked from the grasp of the City, we joked that each time they come back to court, the City has, in their collective imaginations, piled some new demand on to what has now become a mythic “Settlement Agreement”. This time, there were, mercifully, no fines and the judge had stated the City would have to share the costs of a professional, third party inspector at the end of the Settlement Agreement period.
When we last left them after their second Superior Court hearing, the judge had asked for a few days’ time to consider the details of the Settlement Agreement. In her presentation to the attorneys several days later, she had evidently declined to impose fines, but had held them out as a possible remedy should the City “be obliged” to do so for continuing lack of compliance.
Nowhere in her communications to the attorneys or to the court had Judge Montoya-Lewis made any mention of the overreaching and prejudicial acts of the City over the past nine years. During those years, the Rojszas have been trying to complete their redesign while contending with constantly changing rules, lost permit applications and engineering drawings, and general delaying tactics through non-responsiveness and confusion.
Originally, back in September, the Settlement Agreement had specified the exterior would be completed to meet structural and safety codes. Even then, the Rojszas had the necessary permits to complete the interior and were proceeding in a timely way towards completion. They continued work on the exterior as they could, since the City had not responded to their requests for permits for several aspects of the construction. Despite this, the City continued to maintain the Rojszas were stubbornly and rebelliously refusing to move forward expeditiously on the construction and were deliberately creating a “public eyesore” and were themselves a public nuisance. The cause of this mess rests with the City’s initial (and now continuing) incompetence in responding to permit requests compounded by their criminalization of these homeowners’ attempts to move forward through the mire of City contradictions. Perhaps, as in the case with the City Staff of SeaTac, what is truly at hand is criminal deception by the City.
A bit of history review may helpful. If you can, bear with me. It’s mind-numbing, but it’s a significant little piece of Americana irony. The Rojszas bought their house in 2002. Soon after, they became involved with a Downtown Revitalization Committee, with Art as the Chair and Margaret as the secretary. They gradually began improvements on their 90-year-old, two story house. Since it was considered an old house, a permit was not required for many improvements since there is a special provision for these renovations in the National Building Code. However, beginning in 2005 the Rojszas applied for permits to modify their roof and put on an addition. Despite repeated requests, applications were lost and the City took inordinate amounts of time to respond when the applications were finally acknowledged.
In 2009, the City noticed that the Rojszas were making modifications to the roof. They then required the Rojszas to hire a structural engineer to determine whether the modifications were safe and structurally sound. If any modifications were necessary based on this structural analysis, the Rojszas would have 90 days to complete them. They would then be granted permits to move forward and, as permit holders, would be subjected to an inspection every 180 days.
It took the City six months to get an engineer out for the inspection. After that, they were required to get architectural and structural drawings done at their own expense, requiring an official engineering stamp. These were completed and the drawings delivered to the City. The City claimed they had not received them. After a period of time, the City sent back the architectural drawings with markings made by the City staff with the comment from Greg Young, then Head of the City Planning Department, that everything looked fine. The staff continued to maintain they had lost the Structural drawings. The next email from the City stated that, based on the drawings, there were permit violations. The Rojszas had already moved forward with the planned construction.
In 2010, the City revoked the permit and “red-tagged” the building, claiming the Rojszas had gone outside the limits of the permit. From that time until now, there have been periods during which they were allowed to proceed and periods during which permits were revoked resulting in “Stop Work” orders. Meanwhile, recycled materials they had saved from other construction jobs waited, rusting and deteriorating, on their property, unused. By the time a permit would grind its way through the City’s delays, the modifications to the building based on these materials were no longer possible. Since 2010, they have been allowed to work actively on the exterior for a total of about a year and a half. Each time they were forced to resubmit permits, they had to modify their earlier plans due to the shifting availability of building materials.
The City, meanwhile, pulled them into court for several felony violations in 2010, resulting in countersuit by the Rojszas who finally accepted a settlement of $130,000 when the court realized that one charge was based on an unconstitutional City regulation and the other accusation was baseless. The settlement only covers a small portion of the legal fees the Rojszas have incurred since 2009 and none of the wasted time and severe emotional distress caused particularly by false accusations of child molestation at a local Haggen’s grocery store and the City’s trespass onto their property to remove a large campaign sign they had posted for their son’s run for Mayor of the City of Ferndale. They have kept a documentation trail of delayed response to requests, lost documents, contradictory statements and the imposition of new rules at every turn.
In February of this year, the City pulled the Rojszas into Court maintaining they were in violation of their Settlement Agreement. Although there was no specific list of items that had not been completed, the City contended the Rojszas were recalcitrantly continuing to defy completion of the exterior, in violation of their Settlement Agreement. The judge ordered that they stop violating the City’s rules and complete the exterior within tight deadlines.
The City brought the Rojszas back to court in May, saying they continued to openly disregard their responsibilities and the rules of the city and needed to be punished with fines and deadlines. During that hearing, the Rojsza’s attorney unfortunately failed again to obtain a clear list of the things the City claimed were still in violation of the Settlement Agreement. The Rojsza’s were a bit mystified, but continued working around the clock, seven days a week to complete what they believed had been agreed (and for which they finally had permits).
Facing a court review of their progress in July, they were concerned they still had never received a clear list from the city about what remained to be completed. They asked the City in on June 28th to come and do a 60-day inspection related to the court order. They were clear with the City Administrator that the purpose of such an inspection would be for the City to generate a clear check list of the incomplete exterior items so that all parties have the same understanding. The city at first refused, and then interpreted the request as one for a final inspection of the whole house (interior and exterior), despite a paper trail of clear requests from the Rojszas for an inspection to determine what items were still incomplete.
When the two inspectors from the City (neither of them construction experts) finally arrived on July 8th, they requested to be let in for an interior inspection, despite the fact the interior is not the subject of the Settlement Agreement. When the Rojszas refused, another black mark of opposition was registered against them in the City’s book. The night before the inspection, a text from Margaret said, “I am so tired from working too much so I am not sure if I am alive or dead, but if I am dead please bury me in a bikini if possible under the mail box. 🙂 If I am alive, please wake me up.” This is evidence again, I am sure, of the Rojsza’s flippant attitude towards authority. If this is indeed so, let us have more flippancy. We will need it to survive.
The Rojszas had waited until the day of their next court date to receive the letter resulting from that inspection. It had been only the morning of that day when we stood on the courthouse steps that the City’s attorney, Dannon Traxler, sent a follow-up letter to the Rojszas’ attorney. Her letter stated in part “Unfortunately the majority of the items required by the Judgment remain incomplete, and the inspection was a complete waste of City resources.” Yet, the Rojszas still did not have a clear list of what remained to be completed as a result of the Settlement Agreement, the whole point of the exercise.
The letter contained a “punch list” of items the City drew up as a result of the inspection. Most of these items had to do with clean-up of the yard and of the building materials still scattered around the property due to ongoing construction. Other items related to perceived imperfections in siding installation with which the inspectors were unfamiliar. Only two or three items related to things that truly needed to be completed and would be a day or two’s work. The rest of the six-page document is comprised of speculations about the interior they had not been able to see.
As we stood there together on the courthouse steps after the July hearing, laughing yet a bit despondent, Art and Margaret reminisced about how this whole project had begun.
“At the beginning of all this, I know it’s hard to believe, but we were actually grateful to this community and to the US where we had, in the end, come to live. We wanted to create something really interesting here where we were making friends, a gift. What ambitious plans we had! It would be a place that everyone could look to, a central place where you could see the time, like in Europe. We even had an elegant model. Margaret wanted it to be a place for concerts, ballet, expositions, openings for painters, Thursday artists’ dinner with after-dinner intellectual discussions! We knew how to do this, too! We knew how to build wonderful things and we had the energy. Then it started—requests for permits that were never answered, even after repeat letters, emails and phone calls (which we have documented). Then inspection dates that no one showed up for or got postponed repeatedly. All the beautiful recycled materials we had saved from our other construction projects got ruined, waiting out in the weather. When we finally got permits, we had to change the designs since we no longer had the materials! And the accusations we were defying city ordinances with our “junk”! It was our materials waiting for construction to move forward. What else were we supposed to do with them? We put up white tents, and then those were a violation. We put them behind a black curtain, as the city requested, and then that became a violation. And then the false prosecution for “Sexual Harassment”! My God! And they have been talking all along about our “refusal to cooperate” our “non-compliance”. We’ve never known what we had to comply with! In all the places we have done big construction projects, never have I run into such incompetence and obstructionism. We always do the right paperwork, get the right permits and complete the construction when we say we will, always way above code requirements! But here, in our chosen home town, No! We are made instead into criminals! Criminals!”
It is true. In court that afternoon, the city’s attorney again tried to hold that the Rojszas had been oppositional and intransigent. The government, on both the large and small scale, has the power of authority and purports to speak for the interests of the people who put it in place. If the government holds that someone is in opposition to the best interests of the people as a whole, it bears the preponderance of the power, having the police and the court at its disposal. The citizens to whom this government is accountable tend to agree with their elected officials, much in the same ways they tend to agree that police will always take the side of protection and justice and that America is based on an unbiased judicial system.
It is therefore incumbent on that government to be magnanimous in its power, given how dramatically it outweighs the power of an individual citizen. But, it seems now that the City of Ferndale will not let go of the Rojszas and their fantastical and imaginative project. It is willing to spend inordinate resources and use the full weight of its authority to crush them. They will not let them be. The officials of the city have convinced themselves and many of the citizens of the county that these are aberrant people (and foreigners, to boot) who are creating a junkyard in the middle of what should be a new, thriving business center on the Main Street.
Even the Court, thus far, seems to take all the City says on faith. The “Party Line” holds that the Rojszas are criminally irresponsible (“like Gypsies surrounded by junk”) and should be punished as an example to anyone else who wants to step over that fuzzy boundary.
Many friends and admirers of the Rojszas and of their project have written letters over time to two consecutive mayors. We have supported and advocated in every way we know, but these efforts are always countermanded and overwhelmed by the oncoming freight train of the city’s prejudicial stance.
The City Council has abnegated their responsibility to provide a counterbalance to the Mayor in such an instance. They hold that since one of the Council People knows and has admitted to liking the Rojszas, she should recuse herself from any discussion of this matter before the Council. In no other instance has this been demanded of other Council People when friendship has been an issue. In a small town, that would be unwieldy. It is expected that people elected to such a position will make a special effort to make impartial judgments. She has stood firm on principle and refused to recuse herself. The Council has refused to discuss the issue in her presence. Stalemate. By default, the Mayor and his appointed officials have free rein. There is much here to remind us of the SeaTac case. Perhaps the court will finally find evidence of the City’s persecutory and unconstitutional behavior. It will take a court appeal by the Rojszas.
What a joy it would be to see this Clock Tower completed, to witness a gala concert, poetry readings, to have the picnics we used to have in the back yard and to create new events for the community. It is such a shame that this sort of joy has become criminal. Instead, we are told to find our happiness in “going along with the program.” I, for one, would much prefer to see this glorious, idiosyncratic, anomalous fantasy standing in view of Mt. Baker than to see another row of new buildings for offices, many of which are now already standing vacant in this town where we see that white volcano on every clear day and feel the presence of the ocean at our back.
Here’s a video that takes you in to the house five years ago. You can get an impression of how much detail and solidity has gone into this project.