Driving down Marschall Road south of Shakopee, a casual driver might not notice the outcropping of dense brush and woodlands near the intersection with 150th Street. You have to look closely to see the decaying corpses of long dead cars, wooden pallets, tires and truck cabs piled up among the trees.
For more than a decade, city officials have been acutely aware of the property, trying every legal option at their disposal to get the lot’s owner, Gerald Schmitz, 71, to clean up the area. Shakopee Police Chief Jeff Tate called the level of debris and refuse on the property “mind boggling.”
The city has issued Schmitz more than 20 tickets for ordinance violations related to exterior storage, trash disposal and junked cars since 2008. Fifteen of those tickets have been issued this year alone. The police department is currently issuing a ticket every week, on average.
Anyone who makes it past Schmitz’s “no trespassing” signs can see that the extent of the junk just behind the property’s woodland barrier and down a short driveway. A labyrinth of trails travels among an estimated 150 junked cars, boats and snowmobiles. Thin paths work their way through the graveyard of auto parts, past trees wrapped in trash, to a home and barn.
“I’ve never seen [anything like] it before and I hope I never see it again,” Tate said.
Shakopee City Planner Mark Noble said the city isn’t targeting Schmitz with the deluge of tickets, just responding to what has grown into a community issue.
The lot is surrounded by a series of wetlands that extend to neighboring properties, including land owned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community. Out of concern about the property’s environmental impact, SMSC has backed Shakopee’s actions.
“The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community supports the city of Shakopee’s efforts to clean the property and protect area groundwater and natural resources,” SMSC Operations Administrator Stephen Albrecht said in a prepared statement. “Environmental stewardship is a priority for our tribe, as we follow our cultural value of planning seven generations ahead.”
Tate said the extent of the junk would have anyone worried.
“Even the most passive environmentalist would look at this and be upset,” he said.
Residents who live nearby aren’t just upset with what’s going on at the surface of Schmitz’s land, they’re worried about the water table below. Many of the neighboring properties get their water from private wells and there’s a fear that the deteriorating vehicles could be contaminating the groundwater.
It’s uncertain if contamination has already occurred. Noble said that would require groundwater testing, for which Schmitz and other neighbors would have to give their permission. The city planner said thus far Shakopee’s plan has been to remove the vehicles, then assess the damage. But after 11 years, limited progress has been made on that front.
Legal action by the city has had little influence on Schmitz. A case stemming from a 2013 ticket concluded with Schmitz spending 58 days in the Scott County Jail in 2017. The sentence came after Schmitz failed to comply with a plea deal that offered no jail time in exchange for cleaning the property.
The property’s landscape appears relatively unchanged since Schmitz’s release. And as a result, in the last year, city officials have fielded an influx of calls from frustrated neighbors. So Shakopee is taking Schmitz to court once again, hoping a judge will give them the authority to clean up the property.
Schmitz declined to comment when reached by phone and his current lawyer, Richard Lea, did not respond to a request for comment.
Above video: A series of aerial images from the Scott County GIS Mapping system shows the accumulation of vehicles, boats and tires over 19 years.
When it began
The standoff between Schmitz and Shakopee started in May 2008, when the city first issued a ticket for violations of city codes governing exterior storage, refuse storage, storage of inoperable or junk vehicles and for parking cars on an unpaved surface.
Tate said normally it only takes one ticket to end a code violation.
“Our goal is always compliance and code enforcement,” Tate said. “We gain compliance in the overwhelming majority of circumstances and we’re able to get somebody to comply with city code. It’s rare that we actually write a ticket. It does happen but it’s rare.”
By the end of 2008, the city’s code enforcement officer had issued Schmitz six tickets. Each ticket led to the creation of a new court case, which took almost two years to work their way through the legal system. In September 2010, county attorneys agreed to suspend prosecution of all of the cases after a plea agreement was reached with Schmitz and his lawyer, Karen Marty.
According to documents filed with the court, Schmitz agreed to “remove all unlicensed and inoperable vehicles, debris, and refuse from the driveway and surrounding areas of his residence” that were visible from the road. He also agreed to keep the area clean in the future, pay $300 in prosecution and court costs, and give the city access to his property for an inspection before Oct. 22, 2010.
It’s unclear from court files whether Schmitz complied with the agreement by the October deadline, but aerial images of the property on Scott County’s GIS mapping system show in 2011, the property still had rows of old vehicles visible through gaps in the trees.
In December 2013, Schmitz returned to court on another set of violations — duplicates from the 2008 cases. After lengthy litigation, the charges against Schmitz for illegal parking on grass and exterior storage were dismissed. Schmitz, once again represented by Marty, pleaded guilty to having unlicensed vehicles. He was granted a stay of adjudication, which gave him one year of probation to meet several conditions.
Scott County District Judge Christian Wilton made sure Schmitz understood what he was agreeing to during his November 2014 plea hearing.
“You plead guilty today, it’s all done. We don’t look at it again. You’re going to admit to me what you did. And you already did. And that’s it. You know that?” Wilton said to Schmitz, according to a transcript of the hearing.
“Yes,” Schmitz replied.
“OK. You wake up tomorrow morning and think ‘I shouldn’t have done it,’ you know it’s going to be too late?” Wilton asked.
“Correct,” Schmitz replied.
But he would be back.
Schmitz’s plea deal gave him until July 2015 to remove all the vehicles on the property and required him to give the city monthly updates on his progress removing the cars. He was also ordered to allow the city to inspect his property by August 2015.
One year after his plea hearing, Schmitz was charged with failing to meet any of his probation conditions. Court documents filed in the wake of the probation violations provide insight into Schmitz’s thinking.
Schmitz attempted to remove his 2014 guilty plea, arguing that a misunderstanding of the level of the charges against him had forced him to hire Marty. In a March 2016 affidavit, Schmitz says “my intentions from the beginning were never to plead guilty.” He said he only made the plea because of his burgeoning legal fees.
The affidavit concludes with the following argument from Schmitz: “It is my belief that my property is grandfathered, and exempt from Shakopee City Code regarding the violations. My family has been in possession of the property since 1947. The City of Shakopee affixed the city with the land surrounding and including my property in or around 1972.”
Simply put, Schmitz argued that the city codes don’t apply to him. Schmitz appeared confident that this was a strong legal argument, stating in his affidavit “I should have gone to trial, instead of accepting the plea agreement.”
The court ruled against him, upholding Schmitz’s guilty plea. The county reached a third deal with him, giving him until the following July to meet his probation conditions. Schmitz failed to comply. He was ordered to spend 90 days in jail, starting in Dec. 31, 2016, unless he cleared the property.
Armed with a new private attorney, Lonny Johnson, the court allowed Schmitz to delay his sentence until February 2017. The delay came after Johnson told the court his client had secured a towing company — Karels Brothers and Sons — to clear out the cars.
Noble said his notes from a 2017 hearing indicate Schmitz said he had removed 75 cars with the help of the towing company and only had 30 more to go, although Noble doubts the vehicle total ever went that low. Images from the Scott County GIS survey in 2016 and 2018 appear to substantiate this opinion.
Either way, the court found the cleanup didn’t meet the plea’s requirements and Schmitz went to jail in August 2017 for 58 days.
Schmitz was released in October 2017, and according to Noble, there was some progress in late 2018 when Schmitz towed away six cars with the help of a relative. But that progress stalled when Schmitz hired Lea after receiving a new round of tickets from the city.
Noble wrote in an email that he would “conservatively count a min(imum) 120-150 vehicles left on site.”
City officials hope the latest charges against Schmitz will come to a different conclusion than the previous decade. The goal is for the city to receive authority from a judge’s order to remove the vehicles itself — at Schmitz’s cost.
“I am confident that it will get resolved, it’s just not going to be at a snap of the fingers,” Tate said. The chief said he may attend the Schmitz hearings just to show the judge how dedicated the city is to finding a resolution.
Noble is similarly determined. Since 2013, Noble has been a kind of middle man between the city, Schmitz and frustrated neighbors.
“I have to see it resolved because we’ve been working at it for awhile and we’re really kind of pushing,” Noble said. “We’ve just got to see this through.”
But a quick fix is unlikely, even if the city gets the green to begin towing.
“This has taken decades upon decades of him compiling junk essentially all over his property, creating environmental issues,” Tate said. “It’s decades in the making and it’s not going to be fixed overnight.”
Despite the growing frustration, Noble still believes there’s a chance for resolution.
“If he gets it cleaned up, he gets it sold, he’s going to get some money even though there’ll be some assessment for the removal. It’s still a valuable piece of property and I’d like to say there’s a win-win here for everybody.”