When Mike Rosseau and Dorothy Tobe bought a long-vacant church building to live in in St. John, they thought they’d be moving to a peaceful and quiet lifestyle in a small Kansas town.
They never imagined that the city government would push them into homelessness and do its best to make them into criminals.
The property address is 420 N. Main St., but it really sits squarely at the intersection of incompetence and injustice.
Rosseau and Tobe, a married couple in their 60s who were pushed out of Denver by the high cost of rent, are now sleeping in their real estate agent’s guest room.
They’re facing criminal prosecution on an alleged zoning code violation for sleeping on their own property when they first got to town, while they worked to renovate the small former church into a functional home.
If convicted, Rosseau and Tobe could face a $500 fine and six months imprisonment for each violation, and each day is a separate offense, according to St. John Municipal Court documents.
No one in their right mind would send somebody to prison for a minor zoning violation, but it is being treated as a criminal case and in St. John, apparently anything’s possible.
Rosseau and Tobe have already been arraigned and are scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Wednesday, which they’re hoping they can get continued, because they’ve been unable to hire a lawyer.
The few attorneys in the area either have a conflict of interest because they do business with the city, or they don’t do the kind of defense work that Rosseau and Tobe are going to need.
The couple applied for a special use permit that would have solved the problem, and it was approved by the city’s recently created planning and zoning commission.
But the City Council overruled the commission, in deference to a nearby electrical contractor who apparently has his own designs on acquiring the church property.
An employee and business partner of that electrical contractor serves on the council and voted to deny the permit.
Rosseau and Tobe are the first people ever to be prosecuted under the city’s zoning code, which dates back decades. It’s a distinction they could live without.
“We cannot believe they would let a building become dilapidated and fall apart, rather than let people buy it and fix it up,” Rosseau said.
Hard times in Colorado ‘shabby shack’
Rosseau and Tobe lived in Denver for 30 years before coming to Kansas.
He worked as a bicycle mechanic and she supplemented their income with a small eBay business selling various antiques and knickknacks they’ve collected over the years.
They rented a small house that Tobe described as a “shabby shack” next to a corner gas station. But it was only $675 a month and they could afford that.
In July of last year, Rosseau suffered a heart attack and couldn’t work. The next day, “the landlord called me to tell me that he had sold the house and we had to move,” Tobe said.
The modest house and the gas station were sold to a developer planning to build an apartment complex. The house fetched $825,000, as a teardown.
The couple went looking for another place, but Denver rents are sky-high and they couldn’t find anything, even another “shabby shack,” for less than $2,000 a month. They looked south to Pueblo, which was cheaper, but still outside their price range.
So they started looking in Kansas, where they’d heard housing prices were lower. In an online search, Rosseau found the St. John church building and several other possibilities.
The church wasn’t their first choice, but the market was overheated.
They were intrigued by some homes listed for sale in Topeka, but their calls to real estate agents went unreturned, or they were told there were already multiple offers for way over the asking price.
“Our search just kept coming back around to this church,” Rosseau said.
So they arranged an appointment with the listing agent and in one day, drove the 860-mile round trip to take a look at the place.
It wasn’t perfect, but the previous owner had done some upgrades, including a new roof, before putting it on the market.
The price was right: $43,000, which they scraped together from the remnant of Tobe’s inheritance from the sale of her family’s farm in Ohio, and money the couple made from selling about half their belongings.
They rented a Penske truck in Denver and moved themselves, pulling a car carrier behind the truck with Rosseau’s pride and joy, a classic 1954 Hudson Super Wasp, which they unloaded on the lawn in front of the building.
Welcome to Kansas … not
After they bought the property, problems arose with the zoning.
The building was constructed in 1940 as a Church of Christ and later converted to a Lutheran church, but it’s been deconsecrated and vacant for 20 years.
It sits at the outside edge of the city’s downtown commercial district and the city government has it zoned as commercial property.
When the couple bought the church, they had consulted the county tax record, that lists it as “Property Class R, Residential.”
The reason for the discrepancy is what the property is used for, versus what it’s zoned for, said Stafford County Appraiser Carl Miller.
The family that sold the building had used it for years as a storage unit. Because the items stored were personal property and not business-related, the county assessed it as a residential use.
That’s a critical judgment call because under Kansas law, commercial property is assessed for taxes at 25% of appraised value, while residential property is assessed at 11.5% In other words, the owners would have paid more than twice the taxes they did over the years.
When the City Council considered Rosseau and Tobe’s request for a permit to use the former church as a residence, members overturned the planning commission on a 4-1 vote.
Opposition to the permit was led by locally prominent businessman Kevin Davis, the owner of Davis Electrical, a couple doors down the block from the former church.
Davis and a neighboring property owner, Jeni Jones, sent a letter to the council accusing Rosseau and Tobe of disregarding the conditions the planning commission had put on their approval.
“They moved in on Friday, July 7th and have resided there since,” said the letter, which is undated. “Please note that they lived there over the weekend without any electricity or water. The first thing they did was park a car in front of the building.”
The lack of water and power was actually the city’s fault. Tobe has an e-mail in which the city clerk wrote, “We can make sure to have electricity on for the 7th, but you will need to be there for when the water is turned on.”
Rosseau said he’d happily move the Hudson, but the starter blew out when they got it off the transport trailer and he hasn’t had a chance to fix it with all that’s been going on.
People store junk, live in downtown storefronts
The meeting was not recorded — the council hasn’t posted an agenda on its website since September of 2020, and the latest meeting on its YouTube channel is more than a year old.
But several people who were there said Davis spoke about the need to keep the former church zoned commercial, because people wait years for prime business property like it to open up.
If there’s anything St. John has no shortage of, it’s vacant commercial property.
Half the downtown square is empty storefronts where people store their junk.
And if you looked around town, you’d probably find more building and zoning violations than there are residents, 1,200.
For example, while Rosseau and Tobe are getting raked for parking on the grass, their property is directly across the street from the city’s maintenance yard, where the employees park on the grass every day.
At least a dozen people live in the downtown business district, some legally, some illegally, but no one else is facing prosecution. No one ever has.
The former church was never used for commercial purposes anyway, and if Davis wanted it, he could have bought it before Rosseau and Tobe stepped up.
Davis didn’t return a message left in person at his office seeking comment.
Friends in high places not talking
Davis has an ally on the City Council.
According to the city website, council member Ryan Christie has been employed by Davis Electrical as an electrician and HVAC technician for the last 11 years.
The Kansas secretary of state’s website shows Davis and Christie are partners in a company called C&D Irrigation, LLC.
Christie should have recused himself for conflict of interest, but he didn’t.
Contacted by phone, Christie said, “I’m not interested in commenting on it,” and hung up.
Council members Kyle Bunker and Aaron Gleason didn’t return phone messages, and council member Sarah Woolf could not be reached.
The council member who would talk was Mark Bryant, the only one who voted in favor of the permit.
He said he sympathizes with Rosseau and Tobe being uprooted twice in a year. Of the council’s decision, he said, “I do not agree with that and I think it’s wrong.”
He said he’s asked some of his council colleagues why they’re so adamantly opposed to the couple living in the former church, and “I can’t get an answer.”
The chairman of the planning commission, Dennis Veatch, is a former development services director and zoning administrator for Dodge City.
He says the council’s decision was improper because the city failed to notify all neighboring property owners within a 200-foot radius as required, and the protest petition was legally inadequate.
Veatch has asked the council to delay any legal action against Rosseau and Tobe, and start the permit process over and do it right this time.
Rural Kansas towns failing for decades
The prosecution of a pair of would-be residents for trying to move to town is all the more astonishing because the steady depopulation of rural Kansas has been an issue for decades.
The state government is begging — and literally paying — people to move to places like St. John.
Witness this recruiting pitch from the state Department of Commerce: “Kansas is filled with the natural beauty, simplicity and communal bonds of rural life. We want you to experience the peace and joy of rural Kansas so much that we’ll even throw in some added bonuses.”
Trying to stem the bleeding of population, former Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature passed the Rural Opportunity Zone program in 2011.
It offers incoming residents from other states a 100% income tax exemption for five years if they move to one of 95 (out of 105 total) Kansas counties that are classified as rural.
Another element of the program offers $15,000 in student loan debt repayment for college graduates who agree to relocate to rural Kansas for five years.
The program is an expensive and frankly embarrassing failure.
According to an evaluation last month by the Legislative Division of Post Audit, approximately 1,700 people have taken advantage of tax relief since the ROZ got underway in 2012, and 1,650 have gotten student loan debt repayment. An estimated 150 got both, but nobody really knows for sure because the records are sketchy.
The ROZ program has cost the state $27.1 million to attract about 3,200 residents. During the same period, ROZ counties lost 25,000 people.
The Post Audit Division displayed a rare gift for understatement with this conclusion: “A few aspects of the ROZ program may not be operating as the Legislature intended.”
Good old boys used to being in charge
The problem of rural Kansas lies not with its tax rate, but with its sociopolitical structure.
Newcomers with new ideas often hit the wall of a good-old-boy network that’s grown accustomed to running the town their way for their benefit. A common attitude among the local gentry is: “You ain’t from here, so what are you doin’ here?”
Less than a month ago, the news out of Stafford, just east of St. John, was about the city government mowing down a budding nature preserve and arresting a young man who chased the mower off the property with a brush knife.
But Kansas likes to bill itself as a friendly place, and it can be.
Some St. John residents are rallying around Rosseau and Tobe, recognizing the manifest injustice the local power structure is perpetrating on them.
About 20 co-signed a letter to the editor of the St. John News written by journalist Beccy Tanner, who grew up in St. John, moved back after a long career at The Wichita Eagle, and now runs a private Facebook page of local news called “Eyes on St. John, KS, Take Two.”
More residents have shown up at City Council meetings since the charges were filed against Rosseau and Tobe — and most of them are demanding that the city back off.
After the meeting where the council denied the zoning permit, one resident offered to pay $500 of the couple’s legal bills to fight it.
And fireworks erupted at last week’s meeting when another resident — who owns another vacant church that’s kitty-corner to the one owned by Rosseau and Tobe — was escorted out by police after calling the city’s actions a word referencing what comes out of the south end of a north-facing bull.
A Stafford County commissioner, Jim Stanford, has offered to let Rosseau and Tobe stay in his hunting lodge until they can get their legal problems straightened out. Stanford was displaced by a fraternity house fire when he was a sophomore in college, and regularly lends out his cabin to locals displaced by fire or storm damage.
So St. John might just be redeemable after all.
But to get there, the City Council needs to start listening to the growing segment of the community that wants to welcome Rosseau and Tobe as friends and neighbors — rather than dispensing special favors for special people.
The council needs to immediately drop its ludicrous criminal complaint against them, and apologize for putting them through that.
Then the council needs to approve the couple’s zoning permit and give them a reasonable grace period to get their house in order.
That’s what real cities do.
And if the council continues to dig in its heels, well, there’s an election coming up in November.
Christie, Bunker and Gleason are unopposed in their bids for reelection.
But situations like this are what write-in campaigns were invented for.