Fargo auto repair shop owner proves you can beat city hall

Fargo car repair shop owner John Bultman didn’t appear to stand a chance against the city government’s threats to fine him up to $1,000 a day unless he shut down his small business by the end of March. That is until the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm that specializes in protecting the property rights of the little guy against government overreach, got on the case.

An IJ news release summed up the crux of the campaign to abruptly put Bultman out of business for allegedly being in violation of city ordinances after more than 40 years at the same site.

John Bultman has operated John’s Repair for 42 years. Despite being in an area now zoned residential, John’s Repair was grandfathered in as a commercial property by city officials. When Bultman sold the property in May 2021, he continued to lease it from the new owner so he could run the business until he planned to retire in August 2023. However, in December 2022, city officials informed Bultman that he would have to shut down his business and remove all vehicles from the property by the end of March 2023.

In February, however, a strongly worded letter from the Institute for Justice accusing Fargo officials of an “illegal and unconstitutional attempt” to cancel Bultman got city hall’s attention. The letter claimed the city’s action violated Fargo ordinances and the state constitution. Nevertheless, the city continued to pressure Bultman for reasons outlined by Forum News.

The situation that allowed for John’s Repair to remain in operation has changed, according to a statement from the city, and the location went from being a “legal non-conforming land use” to a violation and departure from the original agreement Bultman had with the city.

The current situation continues to violated planning department and building inspections code ordinances, as well as the shop’s original special use permit, the statement added.

Yet somewhere along the line, city officials began to have second thoughts about Bultman’s eviction, partly due to the likely prospect of legal action. Public opinion may also have played a role in the decision to stand down, according to WDAY radio.

Due to public outcry and threatened litigation between the city and Bultman, Fargo officials officially met again with Bultman for the purposes of discussing the official closing date of the business at the property. The meeting was held today behind closed doors in an executive session. In the end, city officials said “they wished to resolve the matter short of litigation” and authorized the mayor to continue negotiations.

The details remain to be worked out, but it’s clearly a rare victory for the little guy, who found you can take on city hall with outside help.

“We’re glad that city officials are now reconsidering their illegal and unconstitutional order to force Mr. Bultman to shut down,” said IJ Senior Attorney Erica Smith Ewing. “Stripping him of his grandfathered status would violate his constitutional rights and break Fargo’s own city ordinances. 

“I wish the city hadn’t made it necessary to get lawyers involved, but I am glad they now seem open to doing the right thing,” added Bultman. “This issue has caused me so much stress for months. I’m 69 years old, I shouldn’t have to be worried about this right on the eve of my retirement.”