TOWN OF LAFAYETTE — A business owner is accusing Walworth County of race discrimination after he was accused of operating an illicit campground for Alpine Valley Music Theatre concert goers.
John Neighbors, who owns Boxed & Burlap coffee shops in Lake Geneva and Delavan, has hit the county with a $3.5 million claim for damages from the alleged discrimination.
Neighbors, who is black, was cited by county officials in June on suspicion of transforming his property into a $100-per-person campground for patrons headed to Alpine Valley to see Dead & Company, a Grateful Dead spin-off group.
In a claim filed with the county Oct. 15, Neighbors alleges that such makeshift campgrounds are commonplace during Alpine Valley’s concert season, and that the county singled him out “based upon his race.”
“John Neighbors has been selectively prosecuted,” the claim states.
The claim seeks $500,000 in damages for emotional injury and another $3 million in punitive damages “to punish and deter such wrongdoing in the future.”
Attorney Daniel Necci, who is representing Neighbors, said the county has not issued any such campground citation in 10 years. Considering that the first person cited is also one of the few black people living in Walworth County, Necci said, seems to be a clear case of race discrimination.
“There’s simply no other explanation for it,” Necci said.
County officials have not announced how they will respond to the claim. If they deny it, Neighbors and his attorney will be free to pursue a lawsuit in court.
Nicholas Sigmund, the county code enforcement officer who cited Neighbors, denied that he engaged in race discrimination. Sigmund said he was responding to a complaint and that he was enforcing the county’s rules on campgrounds.
“I never even considered race to be a factor,” he said.
Of the claim of discrimination, Sigmund said, “It caught me completely off guard.”
The dispute arose during a summer when Alpine Valley Music Theatre was attempting a comeback. After hosting no musical acts in 2017, the outdoor concert venue in 2018 attracted Dead & Company, Brad Paisley and the Zac Brown Band.
Dead & Company performed on June 22 and again on June 23, which necessitated overnight accommodations for many fans planning to catch both shows.
Barbara Fischer, town clerk for the town of Lafayette, said she received a complaint about a campground that had sprung up on a 25-acre parcel along County Road ES.
Fischer said she referred the complaint to the county staffers who handle code enforcement in the town. Such calls have been infrequent in recent years, as Alpine Valley concerts has grown inactive.
“It really has not been a thing in so many years,” she said.
Sigmund said that when he went to investigate, he found about 300 people living in tents with food concessions, private security, first aid, and a shuttle service to Alpine Valley. Admission was $100 per person, which was payable by joining a club called “Wisco Family Love.”
There was also a separate admission of $30 a person to attend a party at the site, which featured live musical entertainment.
For each day the operation allegedly continued on Neighbors’ property between June 22 and June 24, Neighbors was issued two citations — operating a campground in the wrong zoning district and operating a campground without the proper permit.
Each citation carries a fine of $663, which means Neighbors could be liable for nearly $4,000 in fines.
He is contesting the citations, and a trial is scheduled in February at the county courthouse.
Necci said the county’s rules on campgrounds are vague, and his client fully expects to be found innocent. Neighbors invited people to pitch tents on his property, and they all shared the cost of food and other necessities.
“He had a nice little shindig,” Necci said.
Sigmund said he last cited a campground operator near Turtle Lake in the town of Richmond in 2016 for exceeding the campground’s capacity to accommodate a crowd headed to Alpine Valley. Such incidents are not as commonplace as they were years ago, he said.
“It doesn’t happen very often to the scale that was out there,” he said, referring to Neighbors’ site.
Lafayette Town Board member Joe Pappa said he was aware that there had been complaints about the crowd gathered on Neighbors’ property during the concert weekend.
Pappa said he did not know that Neighbors was now claiming race discrimination. Pappa expressed skepticism that county officials targeted Neighbors because of race. He called the discrimination claim “an interesting comeback.”
“It”s America,” he said. “You have the right to do that.”