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February 04, 2015 News » Cover Story

Garage Grit 

In the shadow of Rio Tinto Stadium, garage owner Robbie Maupin fights a municipal land grab

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When Robbie Maupin first dated his wife-to-be, Emily, he took her to his new shop, Garage 94, on 9400 South, just west of State Street, in Sandy. Prior to owning Garage 94, he had been pushed from one location to another, as landlords sold out to developers. Just a few months before he met Emily, he'd agreed to buy the 40-year-old garage from the man who had first employed him as a mechanic.

Maupin couldn't stop grinning that summer day in 2002, as he showed her around the dirty cinder-block-walled shop with its oil-stained floor and dense clutter of engine parts. "He was so proud of it," Emily says. "He was like a kid showing off a new bike."

Shrouded by trees, just off a two-lane blacktop descending from State Street, his garage was "a little slice of heaven," Maupin says.

Besides cars, he'll work on anything with a motor, from a Harley to the eight snowmobiles a friend has parked on his lot for repair. Fixing a car is like an intricate puzzle that keeps Maupin awake at night. Even as cars have become computers on wheels, he says, the fundamentals don't change. "An engine is an engine. They all have different ways that make that son of a bitch work."

But what has changed is the backdrop to what he calls his "ugly shop." Where 10 years ago, there was a large field strewn with garbage and six dump trucks in pieces, now there are the gleaming lines of the taxpayer subsidized $110 million Rio Tinto Stadium, the southside parking lot of which abuts his property.

click to enlarge “I planned on doing this until I didn’t want to work on cars anymore,” Maupin says. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • “I planned on doing this until I didn’t want to work on cars anymore,” Maupin says.

Standing outside Garage 94, South Jordan real-estate agent Joe Scovel looks over at the Rio Tinto soccer stadium, its great white, overarching covers supported by right-angled poles like white bones under a bright blue winter sky. "That stadium started it all," he says.

When local media stories announced in October 2005 that Real Salt Lake (RSL) was moving to Sandy after a tumultuous political battle over public funding, the prices of property surrounding the 19.7 acre lot where the stadium was to be built went through the roof. Sandy City Mayor Tom Dolan was likely not referring to Maupin's garage when he told The Salt Lake Tribune in October 2005 that the stadium could be a major economic driver and a "real catalyst" for all the properties around 9000 South. Nevertheless, Maupin's property, given its location on what would be the corner of where Rio Tinto Way begins its northern descent to the stadium, overnight became the focus of intense interest to multiple parties. Since then, Maupin says, "it's just been a constant fight" to maintain ownership of the garage and the ground it stands on.

Other owners of automotive and industrial businesses that surround the stadium echo Maupin's belief that Sandy City doesn't want them there—that they are, as one commercial entity owner puts it, "the wrong kind of business." While RSL and Sandy City's development plans for the area surrounding the stadium fell victim to the 2008 financial crash, Real's new owner, property magnate Dell Loy Hansen, according to the team's website, is looking at development around the stadium.

click to enlarge Sandy City hopes to build a public trail to relieve game-day congestion - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Sandy City hopes to build a public trail to relieve game-day congestion

Over the years, Sandy has produced several master plans in its bid to eventually become a rival destination to Salt Lake City. In November 2014, Sandy announced a new development vision called "Cairns"—named after rock piles used to provide direction for hiking and surveying. Sandy City public information officer Nicole Martin says Cairns, which includes a multimillion-dollar renovation of the South Towne Mall, is about building Sandy's reputation as the premier "mountain city" in the world, with destinations including South Towne Expo Center, the sports mega-complex Shields and Rio Tinto Stadium. "We're creating a mountain meets urban experience," Martin says.

No David & Goliath

But the city isn't only interested in shopping malls and upscale development. Sometimes the city just wants a sidewalk—or in this case, a walking path. What Scovel uncovered through record requests and knocking on doors was what land surveyor John Stahl calls "the weird actions of Sandy City," focused on building a public trail across the corner of Maupin's garage property from the stadium to parking at the neighboring Jordan Commons and South Towne Expo Center, with the hope of relieving some of the game-day and event congestion.

Maupin has shaken off in court an attempt by the prior owners who claimed they had not sold him the garage and tried to evict him. He survived Sandy City's code-enforcement squads' "strikes" on his property, and the stadium's construction that barred traffic from reaching his business as a new road was put in. He also lost valuable income from having his emissions and safety inspection licenses taken away following a Utah Highway Patrol undercover sting. Now, he faces a challenge from his hometown after Sandy City acquired a piece of Maupin's property by buying it, seemingly illegally, from the prior owner.

Download: Maupin Complaint

City Weekly requested interviews with Mayor Dolan, city attorney Walter Miller and city surveyor Nolan Hathcock—the latter two being instrumental in the acquisition of 0.04 acres of Maupin's 0.29 acre lot, according to court documents, letters and e-mails City Weekly accessed through a record request. Martin cites ongoing litigation as barring any "public dialogue" regarding the history behind the dispute, but notes the walking path Sandy wants is for public safety. "We have people trying to access Rio Tinto Stadium, and this trail becomes an important byway for them."

Not, however, for Rio Tinto. Craig Martin, general manager of stadium operations, says any such path would be "inconsequential to what happens here in terms of egress and ingress."

Sandy's PIO Martin says Sandy City doesn't see the fight between Maupin and the city as a "David and Goliath situation." Rather, Sandy's perspective is that, "there should be no conflict. We feel we have a deed that shows we own the right of way, and Garage 94 has a deed that shows they don't own the right of way."

Download: Sandy City response to CW questions.

It is questions about the legality of the first deed and Sandy's interpretation of the second that lie at the heart of a lawsuit Maupin has filed against the city.

In late 2014, Maupin sued Sandy City and Tamie Ogden, the former owner of his garage (her husband Mike died in 2009), claiming that Sandy City either alone or with other parties, "had developed a 'plan' to acquire a portion of [Maupin's] property, regardless of whether [he] would consent to the sale," according to a filing in 3rd District Court.

In this strange, convoluted tale of private property rights and municipal development, Maupin's fight boils down to just 1,700 square feet that overnight were stripped from his ownership. It might be asked how Sandy City convinced Ogden to sell her land that Maupin is adamant Ogden no longer owned. But the biggest question is why the city simply didn't negotiate with him to buy the land in the first place.

"I think Sandy [City] was looking for a way to accomplish a goal, and this was their attempted solution," says Stahl, who is Maupin's expert witness. "And it's created a nightmare for the Garage 94 people. They're the innocent party sitting here trying to run a business. Now, all of a sudden, they've got land taken away; they haven't done anything but buy a piece of property. They haven't deceived anybody, they haven't done anything shady. They're on the up and up that I could see, and they're getting trampled on by Sandy City."

click to enlarge “I still tried to get along,” Maupin says. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • “I still tried to get along,” Maupin says.

Believing in a Dream

Maupin drives a beat-up 1999 Ford Escort. His customers, he says, tend to be as broke as he is. "In some way or another, we are here to help out somebody who needs it," he says.

That's a philosophy that real-estate agent Scovel, a former captain of an oil rig, shares, at least when it comes to Maupin's battles to keep his garage. Rather than let Maupin admit defeat, the stocky, brash 70-year-old with a North Carolina twang has invested considerable energy and his own time into digging into the mysterious events surrounding Sandy City's purchase of land from Ogden that Maupin's complaint describes as "an unlawful taking." Tamie Ogden declined an interview request by City Weekly.

"He's a mechanic's mechanic," Scovel says about Maupin. "But he's not a businessman. He could hear your car down the road and tell you what's wrong with it, but give him a piece of paper to sign and he wouldn't know what it meant."

Almost 38, Maupin has blond hair that his wife braids into a fish-tail down his back. Spring through fall, he's rarely wearing a shirt.

"Ever since I can remember, I've been tearing shit apart just to see how it works," Maupin says. He's also been searching for a home to do it. "It's always been our dream to have a shop like this," he says about Garage 94.

In 1995, as a 16-year-old, Maupin first drove by Garage 94 shortly after owner Mike Ogden bought it, and asked for work. Maupin worked for Ogden for 18 months, before deciding he wanted to have his own garage. He found a garage in Riverton and two years later, he was forced out after developers bought the land.

He moved to a garage on State Street just past 9000 South and was there two years before the owner sold the property to another developer who put in offices. By January 2002, Maupin was tired of moving, and when he learned Mike Ogden wanted to sell Garage 94, he offered to buy it.

In an affidavit, he described Ogden as "a very good friend," who at times had lived at Maupin's home. "Mr. Ogden's understanding of contracts and real estate matters is as bad as mine. We are mechanics, not lawyers. We had a lot of trust between each other."

Maupin agreed to pay Ogden $225,000 for the garage, its tools and customers. Maupin would pay $1,940 a month until he could get the financing to buy Ogden out. It was all going fine, Maupin says, until Ogden reunited with his former wife, Tamie, and Sandy City announced that RSL was going to build its soccer stadium in Maupin's back yard.

In the wake of Mayor Dolan's 2005 announcement that a mix of public and private funding—including $10 million from Sandy—had led to RSL agreeing to build a stadium between 9200 South and 9400 South just off Interstate 15, Scovel walked around the proposed site, asking businesses if they wanted to sell to RSL.

In Scovel, a curmudgeonly scrapper, Maupin found someone he could trust, Emily says. "He's like me," Maupin says. "He wants to help, he doesn't get paid for this shit, just like me. It's about somebody getting screwed over and somebody doing the screwing and it's not right."

Maupin didn't want to move but he couldn't turn down the opportunity, either. In late October 2005, he agreed to list it with Scovel for $800,000, only for Scovel to discover that Mike and wife Tamie Ogden—they had remarried—had put the garage up for sale for $300,000. Scovel believes the Ogdens intended to sell it to Sandy City.

The Ogdens sought to evict Maupin, claiming he was leasing the garage, rather than having bought it from Mike Ogden three years prior. Scovel dug up tax records and divorce filings that showed Ogden had sold the garage to Maupin. By the time Maupin sued the Ogdens for ownership of the property in late November 2005, he had paid property taxes for almost four years and close to $100,000 to the former owner through monthly payments.

After a 3rd District Court judge dismissed the Ogdens' attempt to quell Maupin's lawsuit, and after mediation, the two parties agreed to a settlement and a new purchase contract with Maupin buying the garage outright. That contract, Scovel says, "did not say anything about withholding land they were trying to sell."

click to enlarge Rio Tinto Stadium as viewed from the canal’s western bank - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Rio Tinto Stadium as viewed from the canal’s western bank

Finally Mine

Maupin wasn't out of the woods yet, however. Unbeknownst to him, there was still the matter of the canal to deal with.

The East Jordan Irrigation company canal crosses the eastern edge of Maupin's property. Land surveyor Stahl, who, in 1995, worked on a boundary dispute involving nine land parcels including Garage 94, says that the canal has an unrecorded, statutorily granted easement for a right of way historically conveyed by the federal government. What that easement grants the canal company, he says, "is the right to be there, to own and operate the canal."

Canal company president Bill Marcovecchio says that right of way extends 33 feet either side of the canal's center line.

Maupin closed on the sale of his property on Sept. 21, 2007. His documents contain a legal description that establishes the property boundaries dating back to 1991, setting his eastern boundary as midpoint in the East Jordan canal. Ten days later, Integrated Title Insurance Services (ITS), representing the Ogdens, issued a warranty deed to Maupin—which he simply filed rather than examined—with an additional clause below the legal description of the property. The Ogdens deeded the land to Maupin, "Less and excepting therefrom any portion lying within the East Jordan Canal and the East Jordan Canal Company right of way."

ITS would later state in a 2013 letter to Sandy City that it added that description in an "abundance of caution," meaning that, as Scovel understood it, they wanted Maupin to be clear the canal company had a right of way.

What the title company was "excepting" was the canal's easement, Stahl says. That means, he says, "there's no written deed that describes what this land is. The interpretations Sandy is trying to make on this deed—that Tamie Ogden owned a strip of land—don't make any sense at all."

Download: Land Surveyor Affidavit

In an affidavit, Tamie Ogden stated she and her husband had always intended to sell the easement to Sandy. How Sandy City was able to translate an unwritten agreement for access in favor of the canal company into a legal description of a property it could purchase, left Maupin, Scovel and Stahl scratching their heads.

"You usually don't see people intentionally creating a legal description out of thin air," Stahl says. "There didn't seem to be much thought that went into the creation of that deed. It was highly improper in my mind."

For five years, Salt Lake County assessed Maupin as the owner of the entire property, "until the July 31, 2012, update reflecting a new parcel of land appearing in the title record," Stahl noted in his affidavit, creating a subdivision on Maupin's property without the mechanic ever being consulted.

Land surveyor Stahl believes Sandy made "a serious misinterpretation" of the deed. Then the municipality folded its arms and refused to acknowledge it had gone wrong. "Somebody certainly was mistaken and mistakes were made," Stahl says. "People just need to own to their mistakes." Scovel, however, argues Sandy City pursued "a well-designed scheme" to gain control of part of Maupin's land.

Go Along to Get Along

In early 2008, Sandy City and RSL contractors were hard at work not only putting in the stadium, but also putting in a 36-inch pipe along 9400 South in front of Garage 94. They subsequently removed it and replaced it with 42-inch pipe leading up to the East Jordan canal where it connected on the edge of Maupin's land. Backhoes and dump trucks routinely blocked Maupin's gates, and many of his clients either couldn't reach him or thought he had closed. The city raised the gradient of the road, forcing back Maupin's property line and cutting off his corner, he says.

Sandy City insisted Maupin purchase privacy slats to be inserted through the chain link fence surrounding his property. "I still tried to get along, not be too wound up over it," Maupin says.

click to enlarge Sandy City’s Community Action Team was tasked to get Maupin to clean up his property. - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Sandy City’s Community Action Team was tasked to get Maupin to clean up his property.

Maupin was targeted by city crews tasked with cleaning up properties the city viewed as public nuisances. As such he received a visit from Sandy City's Community Action Team (CAT), comprising Sandy police and employees of its health and other departments.

Numerous officials from Sandy City descended upon Maupin, to address with him everything from the poodles he and his father brought to the garage to keep them company, to the hot-rod parts worth $500 or $600 apiece he stored there, which they made him get rid of. "They wanted to get people to clean up their shit, so they were not moving the stadium into a trashy part of town," Maupin says.

But it was not only city officials whom he believed were gunning for him. The state also conducted a sting of it is own regarding his safety and emissions testing. "I was the guy everybody called when it failed somewhere else," he says.

In early 2011, a customer showed up at the end of the day begging Maupin to pass his car for inspection, even though it had tinted windows. The man, an undercover Utah Highway Patrol officer, asked him if he could get it passed. Maupin says he was preoccupied dealing with the Christmas Eve death of a family member, and to get rid of the customer, he threw out a number, $50. Even as he did the paperwork, he had a sinking feeling and knew he would lose his safety and emissions license.

On Feb. 9, 2011, he took pleas in abeyance on two class B misdemeanors for tampering with records and pretending to be an official safety station.

click to enlarge A water-diverter box installed in 2012 on the eastern corner of Maupin’s land - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • A water-diverter box installed in 2012 on the eastern corner of Maupin’s land

Not Your Land

Maupin first realized that part of his property was no longer his after receiving a certified letter dated March 18, 2013, from Sandy City's attorney, Walter Miller. It informed Maupin that Sandy City had for some time "been acquiring property for a public trail" that would parallel the canal. Miller wrote that Maupin had to remove fencing and equipment from "our site" by May 15, 2013, the site being the far eastern portion of Maupin's land. What particularly irked Maupin was that the fencing, with privacy slats, had been torn down by contractors to build a massive concrete box to divert water from the canal through the 42 inch piping down to a canal at the bottom of the hill.

Sandy says that the box is for transporting irrigation water and to "prevent overflow and flooding to surrounding businesses."

Maupin asked the title company, Integrated Title Insurance Services, which had sent him the warranty deed on behalf of the Ogdens back in 2007, for an explanation. In a two-page letter, ITS' attorney, Chris Jessop, wrote to both Maupin and Miller that, "It appears the City has attempted to acquire property that rightfully belongs to" Maupin, "without talking to, negotiating with, nor reimbursing" him. Sandy City had gone to the prior surviving owner, Tamie Ogden, and paid her almost $15,000 for the eastern corner of Maupin's property, based on a "right of way easement" that "does not specifically describe any portion of the property."

Download: Letter from title company to Sandy City

The quit claim deed the city relied on to make its purchase, "not only clouds the title to the property," Jessop wrote, "it constitutes an illegal subdivision and appears to have been done in bad faith."

Download: Sandy docs on land seeking to acquire

In a statement to City Weekly, Sandy City's PIO Nicole Martin noted that the municipality "has no nefarious intent against Garage 94, but simply purchased property that Garage 94 did not own to advance our trail system."

Maupin was incensed. "When I bought that land, I got a loan and a loan for the whole piece of property. I'm still paying on that loan, except all of a sudden, I'm stuck paying for a piece of property that I don't own anymore according to Sandy City."

Maupin talked to Sandy City's attorney, Miller, several times on the phone. "The last time I talked to him, he told me that he'd be happy to convey me the balance of the property if I'd allow them to put the sidewalk in." Maupin said no. Miller's response, Maupin says, was that it would have to be up to a judge.

We''ll Pick Up the Bill

Scovel made several record requests, seeking purchasing documents relating to the city acquiring the property. He was told several times there were no documents. "Normally if a city purchases some property, they have to have a requisition, approval from the mayor's office," says Derek Coulter, Maupin's attorney. "When Joe got his GRAMA request back, there was no docs, just a copy of the warranty deed and a check."

In a January 2014 letter to Scovel, Sandy City recorder Molly Spira wrote that he had twice requested a "purchase contract" between Sandy City and Tamie Ogden. The first time, in April 2013, "we scoured our records and did not find any such purchase contract." Sandy wasn't denying his second request, it was "reiterating that the document you request does not exist."

City Weekly also requested documents relating to the property from Sandy City. It received a copy of an unsigned purchase agreement between Tamie Ogden and Sandy. Sandy City PIO Martin reviewed the city's responses to Scovel and to City Weekly. She says that the municipality, "makes every attempt to be responsive and thorough to GRAMA requests. If there has been some error, we apologize."

That document included an undated addendum that noted that Sandy City would "take on any and all legal actions and pay for all costs" if Maupin contested the sale through the courts.

Download: Purchase contract & denial letter

A Place Called Home

On a late Friday afternoon in early January 2015, seven people chat and smoke in the garage. They talk about a friend's tortoise whose leg was ripped off by a dog. Drawing with chalk on the garage floor, Maupin designed a replacement wheel with a shock absorber and a control arm that centers itself. The prosthetic is now at an upholsterer's, waiting for him to to finish it.

Three of the workers slide under an old Ford truck that Maupin's client Tim relies on for his tree-trimming business. "He's trying to keep this thing alive, so he can do what he needs to do," Maupin says. He looks at the truck, wondering why it won't work. "We just haven't torn enough shit apart yet," he says with a laugh.

Emily is concerned about her husband going up against Sandy City. "Robbie is the little guy," she says. "He's risking a lot." She worries the municipality will come after him, but, "I'd much rather see him stand up and fight rather than lay down," she says.

Maupin doesn't know what his chances are against a municipality with deep pockets. "I feel like I put my family in an even worse position. Me wanting to fight these guys, to put more money on this house we owe, it affects my kids in the long run. I don't know if I made the right decision to try and stand up and get it back."

Emily says the people who congregate at the garage, "look at Robbie as like, they don't like to disappoint him, they look up to him." A lot of them are the same age as him. Maybe they get the same feeling he gives to me, I can trust you, trust what you're teaching me, I care about your opinion."

Maupin watches as the men work on the truck. The shadows of the night draw in around the garage. The video feed to Rio Tinto Stadium's massive consoles, which earlier had shown footage of the team, has been long since turned off. Soon the only light remaining will be the warm, yellowy-orange glow coming from Garage 94's windows.

"My bottom line is I planned on doing this until I didn't want to work on cars anymore." Maupin says. "If my kids didn't want to continue, I wanted to sell it and have some sort of retirement. I have no 401k, I have no nothing. All I have is bills and this piece of property."

While both Maupin and the city wait on a decision from Judge Su Chon regarding Ogden's motion for a summary dismissal, Sandy City PIO Martin says the municipality appreciates that "this is his business. We know it's a personal issue to him. We hope that we can resolve it quickly and still have or at least work on a better relationship between [him] and the city."

Finally, Emily says, her husband's fight is not just about getting his land back. "He wants to be all right. He wants Tamie to admit her wrong, he wants an apology from Sandy City, and he wants things to go back to normal. We all do."

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