- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - It all started because Ross Callahan wanted a fence.

Something simple and unassuming, bordering his Rondo back yard; just high enough to keep the dogs in. You know, just like the one of his neighbors had built years ago without asking anyone.

So Callahan went to the city. Then the county. Then the city again.

Over the next three years, Callahan’s dream of a dog fence was discussed by officials in St. Paul’s departments of safety and inspections, parks and recreation; its real estate division and its attorney’s office, the Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/2c88HTC ) reported.

Callahan didn’t know his property lines had become a labyrinthine mish-mash: that he would need the permission of a townhome association that didn’t exist; that the city had utility rights over his entire back yard, not to mention his living room - and he would need permission from seven bureaucratic entities, in writing, to do any work.

And he also didn’t know his quest for a fence would transform him, along with his entire neighborhood.

Over the next three years, Callahan became a scholar of the old Rondo community, a district council member, the creator and head of a village association he never wanted, and the savior of a city park that had once been a haven for drug dealing and prostitution.

Now, Callahan is building an outdoor Rondo memorial displaying a few knick-knacks that elicited sentiment and nostalgia in his neighbors.

“I was originally an angry, pissed-off resident, only to turn into someone involved in my community now. I’m less angry,” Callahan said, “but still irritated.”

It began in the summer of 2013, when Callahan - a Metro Transit project manager with five young children - approached St. Paul’s department of safety and inspections about building a dog fence. Something tasteful, cedar with a burnt sienna stain, to surround the back yard of his home in the 500 block of Central Avenue West, where he’d lived for more than a decade.

“We were just going to build it without a permit, then we felt guilty,” says his wife, Yeng Callahan.

The would-be fence would abut a poorly-maintained path to a nearby city park. Down the road, that path would prove important.

But back then, Callahan received a fairly standard response from the city: Get a property survey; get your “corners” identified; and show us the documents.

The survey turned up a few surprises. Sure, Callahan didn’t own the land he thought he did, and his eaves hung over his neighbor’s yard. But that wasn’t the bad part.

His property extended to the middle of the old park path - a place where, in Rondo’s older days, a street had been.

That missing street had another component: an easement - a slice of his property that was, as city officials firmly noted in emails, “dedicated to the public, forever,” to accommodate such things as utility lines. Callahan admits there was a note of it on his title document that he had missed.

A parks department management assistant also casually mentioned that the path was - on paper, at least - being maintained by some homeowners’ association Callahan had never heard of. Parks had no jurisdiction over it.

But that seemed irrelevant at the moment.

The easement created enough problems. Covering half his plot, it extended beyond his back yard to encompass his entire living room.

Any work done, he was told, would need a sign-off in writing from Xcel, Comcast, AT&T;, CenturyLink, Consolidated Communications, St. Paul’s water department, and something called Level 3 Communications, whatever that was.

“What do you do? It’s our first house, and you find out you don’t own anything. We kind of lost hope for a bit there,” Callahan says.

More than a year passed. Callahan knew there was likely no way to get permission from all those bureaucracies. The fence was a no-go.

“I was very angry. I needed a proactive way not to be angry,” Callahan says. “I learned there’s a whole dynamic, how you do things (with the city). Nobody around me knew how to do those things either.”

And that raggedy, unkempt path bothered him - along with the park connected to it. Was it a city park, and who the heck could tell? There was no sign, and little maintenance. The trees hadn’t been trimmed in years. Garbage cans were often overflowing. It seemed to get mowed once a month.

“I kept my windows closed on it,” said Geneva Smith, 71, who has lived in her park-adjacent home, a couple doors from the Callahans, for 35 years.

Worse, there was plenty of drinking, drug dealing and prostitution driving families away, neighbors said.

“The activity that was happening there probably wasn’t what we’d classify as family friendly,” admitted Brad Meyer, a former Parks and Recreation spokesman who now manages its support and youth services.

So Callahan adopted a creative strategy: emailing the city, as if he were the park itself.

“I am Central Village Park. I hope that you haven’t forgotten about me,” his email to numerous city officials began. “Sadly, the city failed Rondo, but you have a opportunity, a real chance to succeed. If you haven’t been by to see me lately, I am sick and dying. My arteries ‘walking paths’ are clogged, cracked, broken, sunk in, and sadly covered in trash and glass. .

“Don’t let me go the way our mothers and fathers did Rondo!!!!!” the email ended.

Perhaps it was all that extra punctuation.

“Thank you for you heartfelt and creative email. It certainly got our attention!” wrote back park maintenance supervisor Karin Misiewicz.

She wasn’t the only one.

“It got more of a chuckle than a ‘who the F is this guy?’ ” said Meyer. “The thing he does well is, when he communicates, it’s the whole kit and caboodle.”

Later, Callahan sent pictures of used condoms strewn on the grass and gravel, with captions like “Help! I’m dirty!”

“Before, I could not get anyone to come down and see what we’re talking about, the disrepair. Once I ‘became’ the park, people actually came down,” Callahan said.

A key part of the communication, though, was that there was more honey than vinegar, city officials said. After an initial burst of exclamation points, in follow-up emails, Callahan asked what he could do - if anything - to help.

And he delivered: organizing clean-up crews, and patrolling the park regularly for trash or graffiti. He bought 17 trash grabbers on his own dime, and handed them out.

“He got people, and not just cleaned up the park, he cleaned up along the freeway. He’s going to repaint my house. He does a lot of stuff for me, pulls weeds,” said neighbor Rachel Shockley, 77. “Those park trees hadn’t been trimmed in more than a decade.”

In the end, multiple neighbors now say the city’s mowing the grass a lot more often (city officials say they mow it as frequently as they always have). And they’ve also installed new trash cans, tables, benches, and trimmed the trees, and put in a new sign. A new grill is on the way.

“That’s now one of our hot-spot parks. We call it one of our ‘fab five’ (for the district),” the parks department’s Misiewicz said.

Callahan said the city’s response was pretty close to the opposite of what he expected.

“Honest to God, they went above and beyond anything I would’ve thought would happen. I expected them to blow me off,” he said.

But Callahan still wanted his fence, and that path behind his house remained a conundrum.

Part of the problem, city officials told him, was that some old homeowner’s association was supposed to be caring for it.

Neither Callahan nor any of his neighbors had heard of “Central Village Association I.” But it certainly wasn’t caring for anything.

In the spirit of municipal cooperation, Callahan finally came clean about who the anonymous “Central Village Park” was. Yes, it was him: that fence guy.

And, not one to let anything go, he made another inquiry about his fence. City officials responded that the easement hadn’t gone anywhere. But he could put his fence in his front yard instead, if he wanted.

Fine, Callahan said.

Oh, but there was a caveat, city officials told him: He’d need the permission of “Central Village Association I” to do it. It turned out that the association - whatever it was - had a decades-old, self-perpetuating covenant governing any exterior work on homes in Callahan’s cul-de-sac.

So started months of fruitless research. The archives department of the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority - which had overseen construction of the cul-de-sac in the 1970s - turned up nothing. A visit to county property records produced a sympathetic clerk, but no records.

Beyond the words “village association” on Callahan’s title, there was no evidence to be found.

“For me to get permission to build a fence, I needed to get a response from an agency that didn’t exist,” Callahan said.

Then one evening, Callahan found himself venting to his elderly neighbor, Shockley - the one whose weeds he pulls. And the clouds broke.

Shockley vaguely remembered something. She and her late husband were the first ones in the late-1970s to move into the cul-de-sac, which had been built in the wake of the Rondo neighborhood’s near annihilation, when swaths of homes were eradicated to make way for Interstate 94.

Maybe, Shockley said, she had something in her basement?

“I was probably the only one that kept anything. My husband, he called me a pack rat - ‘Oh, just throw it in the safe. Just throw it in the safe.’ So I threw it in the safe,” Shockley said. “He called it junk, but I told him it might be of importance.”

Shockley emerged from her basement 45 minutes later and produced the Central Village Association I’s original covenant - along with an old plat map.

“That old association, it was never actually formed,” Shockley said.

Callahan tried not to breathe too heavily as he took the documents in his hands. They might blow away, or just plain disappear.

That day, he rushed to the county’s tax record department, and brandished the documents. County officials studied them and realized their version had been filed under a defunct number.

That same day, Callahan talked to a county attorney associated with the records department and asked how to get rid of the cursed covenant, since nobody had abided by it, or had even known about it, for decades.

Getting rid of a self-perpetuating covenant could be expensive, he was told. It would certainly require going before a judge. But the attorney had a suggestion.

“Why don’t you just become the association? Since you’re already the association.”

The idea didn’t sit well.

“When we bought this house, part of it was we didn’t want to be part of an association. We didn’t want those restrictions,” said Yeng Callahan.

“And we ended up part of an association,” Ross Callahan said. “Ultimately, we became the association we always were, but nobody knew we were.”

Callahan formed the Village Association with his neighbors on Aug. 16, 2015. Its first order of business: “approval in building a fence from the respected board of directors of the association.” The request was approved.

Callahan made another inquiry about a backyard fence to the city. Officials responded that the easement hadn’t gone anywhere.

“I thought, if I get rid of the covenants, I’d get a foothold. . Needless to say that didn’t happen.”

So he built his fence in his front yard instead.

And that seems good enough (for now).

At the urging of a couple of Callahan’s neighbors - impressed by the way he cleaned up the park - he ran for district council a couple months later and won. And he doesn’t shut up about the park. Or, to put it more diplomatically: “He’s certainly a more frequent communicator than most of our park advocates are. That’s not a bad thing for us. As long as he’s not going to try to dig a big hole in the ground and build a swimming pool, it’s fine,” said Meyer. “I actually enjoy hearing from him.”

Though, Meyer adds, “He’s got a bunch of big ideas, too.”

“He has so many ideas, I just nod my head,” said Yeng Callahan.

While digging holes for the new fence in his front yard, Callahan unearthed some old kick-knacks and bottles - another man’s junk. But a few neighbors told him they brought back memories.

So he’s building a glass case for them, which will be placed on a parking median across from his front yard - a tiny slice of lawn once surrounded by abandoned cars, that Callahan now owns.

Neighbor Shockley notes that some in the community now comment on Callahan’s never-ending officiousness.

“Some people say, ‘What’s he doing over there now? What’s he doing over there now?’”

Is it a case of bad experiences with the city? Good ones? Callahan has mixed feelings but, when pressed, he tends to veer toward the positive.

“I get it, though. I get why it is,” Callahan says about why he couldn’t put a fence where he wanted it.

But it’s got nothing to do with an easement or a covenant or any reason the city gave.

As a district council member, he took stock of another path leading to Central Village Park. This one had a row of backyard fences, all grandfathered in. Callahan couldn’t believe it.

And it’s a weed-strewn mess. Nobody cleans or cares for the areas on the path’s side, the “wrong” side of the fences. And that path side - that park - means more to Callahan now than the fence ever did.

“I’ll keep calling on it,” Callahan says. “In the end, time’s on my side. I’ll work with them, but I’m not going anywhere.”

___

Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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