AZTEC — San Juan County's code compliance officer has charged lifelong county resident Carl Bannowsky with 27 petty misdemeanors for violating a flood damage prevention ordinance.
Bannowsky pleaded not guilty to the charges on Wednesday during his arraignment in Aztec Magistrate Court. He said in interviews this week he will fight the charges, which he says were filed in retaliation for speaking out against the county's junk and trash ordinances.
"I bought the property, I pay taxes on it and I can put whatever I want on it," he said. "I'm being prosecuted because I am standing up to the county commission."
Each of the charges against Bannowsky is punishable by a $300 fine and up to 90 days in jail, according to court documents. But county officials said they only want Bannowsky to comply with their rules, which are designed to protect the lives and property of others, and don't want him to serve any time behind bars.
Joe Sawyer, a San Juan County deputy attorney, said state law allows the county to pass ordinances and hire a code compliance officer who has the authority to charge people with misdemeanors for violating those ordinances.
The code compliance officer has sent Bannowsky notices that he is in violation of the junk ordinance, but he has only been charged with violating the flood-damage prevention ordinance.
That 2003 ordinance established rules for flood zones throughout the county and requires that any vehicle left in a flood zone for more than 90 days be either removed or anchored to prevent it from floating away during a flood, Sawyer said.
County Operations Office Mike Stark said unanchored vehicles could be dangerous and damage property downstream if they are swept away in a flood. An arroyo that cuts through Bannowsky property has been classified as a flood zone, he said.
Bannowsky lives on four acres of property in San Juan County south of Aztec. He has hundreds of cars, many from the 1950s to 1970s, on his property. Though many of them won't run, Bannowsky said they are invaluable for their parts, which are no longer being made and can be used by car restorers.
"It's no different than a hospital," Bannowsky said of his property. "You go to the hospital to get a heart transplant or kidney transplant. These are transplant cars for other cars."
During a tour of his property on Friday, Bannowsky said the cars preserve a record of a different time in American auto-making. They are also important pieces to him, personally.
The most important car on his property — a 1953 Nash. It was his wife's car. She died in 2005.
"She was driving it the night we met," he said. "That makes it pretty special to me."
He also has the first car he ever bought. And one of the last cars his father ever bought.
"There's a lot of history here," he said.
Stark said the county used geographic information systems to document the fact that Bannowsky added cars to the flood zone. Every few years, planes fly over the county with instruments that are used to create maps. The maps have been used to determine city limit boundaries and assist law enforcement and businesses, as well as to detect violations of certain ordinances.
Stark said the county compared maps of Bannowsky's property from prior to 2003 to maps created after 2003 and learned he added 27 vehicles and "debris piles" to the flood zone. He was charged with a petty misdemeanor for each addition, according to court documents.
Bannowsky said the county is retaliating against him.
He said last year, he received a "notice of violation" from the county that said he was in violation of the junk ordinance and he needed to take steps to come into compliance.
Bannowsky responded with a letter that said he was a "hobbyist" and his hobby is protected under New Mexico law.
About six months after Bannowsky sent that letter, he was charged in connection to violating the flood zone ordinance.
Bannowsky was vocal in his opposition to the county's junk ordinance before it was approved in 2011. The law prohibits county residents from keeping more than three undriveable vehicles on their property if they don't take measures to cover up the vehicles.
In 2012, Bannowsky ran for the county commission on an anti-zoning, anti-junk-ordinance platform against three other candidates. He earned 20 percent of the vote but lost the race to Commissioner Scott Eckstein.
Bannowsky said as he fights the misdemeanor charges, every one of the 38,000 residents who live in unincorporated San Juan County outside of the Navajo Nation should pay attention. On Friday, he said he doesn't plan to make changes to his property at the county's request.
"Everybody in the county, not just people with antiques, should be concerned," he said. "All this amounts to is the county taking away our private property rights."Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.