Suit calls for county to pay rodeo operator for financial damages
For Thomas ‘Pinky’ Marsh, the fight isn’t over.
Three years after he and county officials began fighting about rodeos at his Marshville farm, Marsh sued Union County and county officials Monday, Nov. 1, in U.S. District Court. The suit singles out Planning Director Richard Black and Zoning Administrator Lee Jensen as individual defendants.
County commissioners’ chair Kim Rogers said Monday she hadn’t heard about the suit, and Black and Jensen were unavailable by press time.
“It’s been in the works for a while,” Marsh said. “I tried to get the county to address the problem, and they’ve done a lot of twisting to get out of talking to me. Now we’ll talk in the courtroom.”
In the suit, Marsh claims Jensen, Black and Union County commissioners “engaged in an ongoing conspiracy designed to intimidate, frustrate and humiliate” March and “deprive him of his constitutional rights,” by restricting his ability to hold rodeos on his 1633 Landsford Road property. Citing the 14th Amendment, Marsh argues he was deprived of use of his property without due process and or equal protection under the law.
“Since January 2007, the defendants have consistently required (Marsh) to obtain a special use permit to hold rodeos, while not placing the same requirement on similarly situated rodeo operators in areas of Union County … that are subject to Union County Land Use Ordinances,” the suit states.
Marsh went to the county in 2007 to request a permit to hold his Plaza del Toros Rio Grande rodeos on the property, for which he charged admission, brought in bands to play and sold concessions. Based on a Spanish model, the rodeos targeted a Hispanic audience.
The county Board of Adjustment revoked Marsh’s special-use permit for the rodeos in 2008, after he held more than the four allowed annually by the permit. Since then, Marsh has held at least five rodeos, most recently in June 2009.
“This whole situation has caused a lot of stress,” Marsh said, and cost him a lot of money. So far, the Marshville farmer has sold 252 acres of his 302-acre family farm, to pay legal bills that are piling up.
“I’ve had people tell me this is foolish. I’ve had people tell me this is crazy. But my name, my integrity is worth more than anything,” Marsh said. “They said I broke the law, but show me what law I broke. I’ve done nothing but tell the truth.”
Three years of court battles
The case has been in and out of court, with the latest ruling coming July 6 from the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appeals judges sided with earlier rulings from Union County Superior Court and the Board of Adjustment, saying the county had the authority to regulate Marsh’s rodeos.
Marsh has long contended his rodeos are farm activities and, therefore, subject to state, not county, regulation. State law doesn’t specifically address rodeos, but they’re included in the state’s definition of agritourism: “Any activity carried out on a farm or ranch that allows members of the general public … to view or enjoy rural activities, including farming, ranching, historic, cultural, harvest-your-own activities or attractions.”
Appeals judges said they did not consider his argitourism defense because of the way he filed his appeal.
On April 16, 2008, a Union County court judge said the county had the authority to regulate Marsh’s rodeos. Because Marsh didn’t appeal this ruling and, instead, challenged that his permits had been revoked, he tacitly accepted that the county had the ability to issue permits and regulate his events, said the appeals court wrote.
In his new federal suit, Marsh says he struck on the idea for rodeos and asked Black and Jensen the process was to get approval. They told him, the suit says, that Union County had no authority to regulate the events and told Marsh they needed to research the subject. Days later, Jensen told to apply for the special use permit to help protect the county, the suit says.
Yet, Marsh says, other groups such as the Bar L Rodeo in Marshville, have operated for more than 15 years without obtaining a permit. The unequal treatment is the basis of his constitutional claim.
“They’ve got to talk now,” Marsh said, speaking of county officials. “This is going federal. It won’t be coming back to Union County.”