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Erik Burgess, Published May 11 2013

City to block downtown Fargo bar patio work until lot fixed

FARGO – A downtown bar owner who is being sued by the city because his private parking lot isn’t up to code likely won’t be able to expand his patio until the parking lot issue is settled.

Late last month, the city’s Liquor Control Board recommended that the City Commission deny a proposal by Rick Engen, owner of Fort Noks Bar of Gold, 52 Broadway, to extend his liquor license so he could serve alcohol on a proposed patio addition.

The addition would bring the existing patio 12 feet farther into his adjacent gravel parking lot, which is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by Fargo in November that claims the unfenced, unlit gravel lot violates city standards.

“Any time somebody’s doing a renovation or an expansion of a building, we would expect that they bring the site into compliance with the Land Development Code,” Fargo Planning Director Jim Gilmour said. “Even if the liquor board were to approve the expansion of the site, he’s still not going to get a building permit.”

When reached for comment, Engen said he would first have to speak with his attorney, who he said was out of the office Friday.

The liquor board is set to discuss the issue again Wednesday, at Engen’s request, said City Auditor Steve Sprague. Sprague said the board could still decide to approve the liquor license extension contingent upon Engen bringing the lot up to code.

The 12,544-square-foot lot north of the bar has been vacant since after an April 30, 2000, fire destroyed three buildings on the property. When Engen purchased a portion of the lot from the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority in March 2004, he agreed to a restrictive covenant which said he would bring the lot into compliance with the city’s Land Development Code, according to the lawsuit.

The city is asking that the court require Engen to bring the property up to city standards and to award the city costs and disbursements.

Gilmour has said the city would like to see development of the parking lot, which is along a stretch of Broadway in the city’s core.

In April, the Liquor Control Board recommended that the City Commission deny Engen’s request to extend his liquor license to cover a proposed new patio space, voting to wait until the lawsuit is finished.

The item was pulled off the Monday, April 29 City Commission agenda at Engen’s request. Since then, Gilmour said Engen has applied to the city for a community development block grant to help improve the lot. The grant program uses federal money that is allocated by the city. But Gilmour said city policy caps each grant at $15,000, and Engen is requesting $35,000 to help pave, fence and provide drainage for the lot. The total project costs $75,000, Gilmour said.

The grant also can’t be used to pave a parking lot, Gilmour said, because the program is intended only to “eliminate blight” by sprucing up storefronts or lots, for instance, by adding a decorative fence.

“We’re not trying to subsidize surface parking,” Gilmour said. “If it’s just pavement, that doesn’t meet the federal requirements of eliminating blight.”

Gilmour said the grant has been “very successful” with other downtown businesses. The Community Development Committee, Historic Preservation Commission and City Commission all have to approve projects before grants can be awarded.

Gilmour said it took a long time to file suit against Engen because the city was under the impression that he had serious plans to develop the lot.

Engen had a project for the lot approved by the Renaissance Zone Authority in 2002, but he has said that economic hardship has prevented him from finishing. The proposed project was a three-story building with commercial and office space on the upper two floors and retail on the main floor.

“I think we were just too patient with him,” Gilmour said. “For quite a few years he didn’t operate it as blatantly as a parking lot, and he was saying a new building would be right around the corner. So we thought something was imminent.”

No date has been set for a trial between the city and Engen, court records show.

Engen is also on the city’s Parking Commission. City Commissioner Mike Williams, who also serves on that committee, said Engen would recuse himself from voting when the topic of his lot came up, according to the minutes of the meeting Nov. 1, 2010. Engen’s term on the Parking Commission expires June 30.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518