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Jewish school disputes "excessive" city property violations

A Cottage Grove Jewish boys' school that has faced its share of hard luck since it opened in 2006 now faces a new challenge - charges from city inspectors that it hasn't kept up its property to city standards.

As the Yeshiva High School of the Twin Cities fought tooth and nail to stay afloat the past two years, the city of Cottage Grove says a litany of small, property-related violations accumulated at the school on Indahl Avenue. The list includes things like improper exterior storage, the accumulation of loose trash on the edges of the property, the failure to build a brick enclosure around its trash receptacles and an unpaid, $100 fine.

But Rabbi Moshe Weiss, Yeshiva's development director, disputes the city's claims, saying the school has corrected code violations presented by city inspectors, including cleaning up a fallen basketball hoop and removing three inoperable vehicles that had been donated to the school from the parking lot.

Only the garbage enclosure was not addressed, because Weiss said it would cost an estimated $6,000 to build a brick enclosure as required by city code. For a school stretched thin financially, that was simply too much, he said.

This week, the rabbi is scheduled to appear in Washington County District Court in Stillwater in connection with misdemeanor charges stemming from the accumulated violations alleged by the city.

"It's excessive," Weiss said. "It's an abuse."

Ben Pierson, the city's code enforcement officer, says the school's violations have gone on so long - roughly two years - without being corrected that he had no choice other than to forward the case to the county court system.

Four complaints from neighbors over the past two years led to the situation, he said.

Weiss said he had only spoken to the city a few times regarding the alleged violations.

"As an enforcement tool, that is one of the last tools in our toolbox," Pierson said. Cottage Grove took administrative court action against 19 properties in 2010.

Weiss said last week he didn't think the violations were a serious situation until he was notified in mid-June that he was being criminally charged; the rabbi also said he was uncertain why he was charged with the misdemeanors on behalf of the school.

Weiss, who lives in St. Paul, is the only one of three rabbis at the school who does not reside in Cottage Grove.

Bob LaBrosse, the city's chief building inspector, said the city typically charges the owner of a property with misdemeanors stemming from unresolved compliance issues at that address. He said city inspectors had typically dealt with Weiss on matters of code compliance and inspections.

But, Weiss isn't the building's owner -- it's still in the hands of the Minnesota Baptist Conference, to whom the Yeshiva school has been making payments. Nor is he listed as the school's property manager.

Despite the disagreement, Weiss said Yeshiva has "had a great relationship with the city of Cottage Grove from day one." But he called the current situation "a waste of the city's very valuable resources."

Weiss is due to appear in court Thursday.