Kalispell bangs its head against a wall 

Whose nuisance?

Scott Thomas, sitting in his verdant oasis of a back yard recently, talks fast about his ongoing fight with the city of Kalispell over the wall that separates his yard from the alley.

“I got told to change its aesthetic appearance. That’s a non-issue,” he says, his intense demeanor and black, thick-rimmed glasses reminiscent of Henry Rollins. “This is such a bunch of bullshit.”

Thomas’ fight with the city stems from a case the city brought against him last year, alleging that his wall violates Kalispell’s Community Decay Ordinance.

Thomas’ wall is made of old tires he found piled in his back yard after buying his Kalispell home last summer. He stacked the tires, bolted them together, filled them with dirt and plastered over them with stucco. The result is a wavy, six-foot-tall, 20-foot-long tan-colored wall. Its irregular shape, color and texture give it an organic look, as if it were created by a geological process.

City Attorney Charlie Harball has a different view of the wall.

“He essentially piled the tires up and whitewashed them with an adobe-type of stucco thing,” Harball says. “Certainly, as far as the neighbors are concerned, it is still a pile of tires, but now it’s white tires, you know, in a pile, and they aren’t very appreciative of it.”

Neighbors across the alley in the Elms apartment building began complaining about Thomas, according to Harball, when he first piled the tires in the spot he chose for the wall. After the wall was built, Harball says, the neighbors continued to complain.

“The city had received numerous complaints about the nuisance in his back yard,” Harball says. The number of complaining neighbors was “more than a half-dozen or so,” according to Harball.

But Kalispell Assistant City Attorney Rich Hickle, who is actually handling the case, has doubts about the number of people who’ve actually complained.

“I’m not sure if there were one or more,” he says.

One complaint or six, it was enough for the city attorney’s office to file a nuisance action on behalf of the city.

In October 2004, the city issued Thomas a citation for violating its Community Decay Ordinance. In December, Thomas went to Kalispell Municipal Court, where, in a bench trial, Judge Heidi Ulbricht found Thomas guilty of the charge. Ulbricht told Thomas he could keep the wall if he plastered over the curves between each stack of tires, to make the wall’s alley side smooth, hiding the shape of the tires at its core.

“I couldn’t handle it,” Thomas says of the decision. “I thought it looked great.”

Rather than give in, he hired Kalispell attorney Scott Hilderman and appealed to state district court.

In a May ruling, Judge Stewart Stadler sent the case back to municipal court. In his decision, Stadler highlighted the part of the city ordinance Thomas is allegedly violating, which says city residents cannot “maintain a public nuisance.” Stadler then gave the city’s definition of public nuisance: “A nuisance which affects, at the same time, an entire community or neighborhood or any considerable number of persons…”

Stadler finally pointed out that the city offered no evidence that the wall constituted a nuisance for anyone, much less “any considerable number of persons.”

After getting what he considered a favorable decision from the district judge, Thomas figured the city would move on to more important issues, freeing his time to continue rehabilitating what he calls “one of the three shittiest houses on the block.”

Over the past several months, Thomas has taken the dilapidated house and slowly transformed it, whenever possible using the sustainable building practices he used for his wall. Where possible, he uses existing and salvaged materials. He also finds new uses for materials he would otherwise have wasted—for instance, taking leftover concrete, pouring it on the ground into large pancakes, and then, when they dry, flipping their flattened bottoms up for use as stepping stones to make a path around the side of the house.

The work Thomas has done already shows. The house now sports new siding of salvaged corrugated metal and the beginnings of a deck. Thomas has completely gutted the structure’s interior and installed several additional windows and skylights.

Unfortunately, Thomas has run into financial problems during his remodel and is currently less than 30 days from foreclosure. Although he doesn’t blame the city for his problems, he says the $1,200 he spent on a lawyer would have gone a long way toward his mortgage payments.

And it appears Thomas will be shelling out more money to fight the city’s case. On July 21, at a municipal court hearing, he discovered Kalispell is just as obstinate as he is when the city announced it would search out neighbors who have a problem with Thomas’ wall to testify against him on Sept. 14.

Thomas says he’ll be talking to his neighbors, too, and plans to have “a line of people” in court supporting his wall.

“I’m trying to create an example in town of what we can do [with sustainable building],” Thomas says. “I’m trying to do the right thing.”

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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