The owners of a St. Francis home that was damaged by fire in February 2012 have been granted a temporary restraining order by Anoka County District Court against the city to prevent it from repairing the home’s nonfunctioning curb box stop and then billing the homeowners for those repairs.
The motion was filed Jan. 29 by Jennifer O’Reskie and Gary Smith asking the court to prevent the city from taking any action with respect to the curb stop box on their property “until such time as the city can prove by a preponderance of the evidence that a violation of City Code Section 3-2-4 exists.”
It was granted at a Feb. 5 court hearing, but on Feb. 7, Karen Kuth, a representative of the city attorney with the Barna, Guza and Stefen law firm, said the city and property owners have reached a tentative settlement in the matter and are working out the details. The order is expected to be amended based on the agreement.
A curb box stop is a water shut-off valve accessed through a three- to four-inch round cap usually located in the front yard or driveway of a home that is connected to city water services. It is located six or seven feet underground and connects to the pipe that brings water to the house from the water main in the street. City staff can access the curb box stop to turn water to the home on or off through a long tube under the round cap.
City staff had inspected the Rum River Boulevard home owned by O’Reskie and Smith after the fire, which had substantially damaged the home and left it in uninhabitable condition. The inspection revealed that the home’s Sheetrock and insulation had been removed, creating a potential situation in which the home’s pipes could freeze and burst during winter temperatures, said City Administrator Matt Hylen.
Hylen said that discovery prompted city staff to test the property’s curb box stop to make sure that the water could be turned off if, in fact, the pipes did freeze and burst, potentially further damaging the home.
After finding that the curb box stop was not working, the city sent the homeowners a citation letter, asking them to repair the curb stop box as required by city code. The repair is likely to cost several thousand dollars.
The concern, according to Hylen, is that if the pipes do burst because of cold temperatures, the only way the city would be able to shut off the water without an operational curb box stop would be to turn off water to somewhere between 20 and 70 other homeowners at the same time.
The homeowners have been keeping the property heated in an effort to prevent the pipes from freezing, Hylen said.
According to court documents, the property owners contested the citation and requested a hearing on the issue, which was held on Dec. 19, 2012
The hearing officer found that “the city did not submit any pictures, reports, direct testimony or reliable hearsay describing the nature of the violation regarding the curb stop” and that “the city failed to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a violation of city code… exists.”
The property owners’ motion claims that the city re-tested their curb box stop on at least two more occasions, but did not issue a notice of violation or citation after those inspections.
However, in a Jan. 17 letter to the homeowners, the city asked them to obtain a plumbing permit for the repairs by Jan. 23 and to have the repairs completed by Jan. 30 or the city would proceed with repairs at the homeowners’ expense.
Since the home is uninhabitable, the couple have been residing in a motor home on the property.
According to court documents, repairing the home has been delayed because of litigation with the company that issued their homeowners insurance policy.
They “have been forced to sue their insurer in order to obtain a result on the fire damaged property. They are in no position to incur unnecessary and unlawful charges relating to a curb box stop that has not been shown to be in violation of the city code.”
Hylen said the city does not routinely inspect every curb box stop in the city; to do so would require a great deal of staff time and would considerably increase residents’ water bills. There is no way to know how long this particular curb box stop has been broken; it could have happened recently or several years ago.