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Johnson Janklow Abdallah's Steve Johnson Wins Case before The South Dakota Supreme Court

Jan 10, 18

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Owners of a house that towers over others in a historic neighborhood must match their dwelling to the historical standards of the neighborhood, the state's high court ordered in a unanimous ruling Thursday.

The house’s owners, Joseph and Sarah Sapienza, sparked the ire of their neighbors in historic McKennan Park here as they began building the more than 4,000-square-foot home in spring and summer 2014. It replaced a more modest dwelling built in the mid-1920s. 

Pierce and Barbara McDowell, who owned the home that fell in the shadow of their next-door neighbor, filed suit in 2015 against the Sapienzas and the city of Sioux Falls, whose Board of Historic Preservation approved the building permit.

"They would have to redesign their house, retool it, reconstruct it and get it approved by the historical board," Steve Johnson, lawyer for the McDowells, said about the consequences of the ruling for the Sapienzas. "Or the home could be removed, which obviously seems like the only reasonable alternative."

The Sapienzas bought an older house on the same lot in September 2013 for $300,000. In November 2016, the most recent information available, their new house was assessed for tax purposes at more than $700,000, and the Sapienzas were paying almost $14,000 to Minnehaha County in property taxes.

The Sapienzas appealed to the state's highest court after Judge John Pekas of Second Circuit Court determined in a civil suit that their house violated rules for newly built homes in the McKennan Park neighborhood.

Its height is almost 12 feet taller than the average height of the historic houses in the neighborhood and more than 8 feet taller that what was permitted for new construction, according to court records. The Sapienzas' house is listed as having three split levels plus a basement in property records; the McDowells' house has 1½ stories plus a basement.

"My client wanted the house made compliant or removed," Johnson said.

The South Dakota Supreme Court decision may be an inspiration to homeowners who have steamed privately about new humongous houses in their older neighborhoods. But it applies only to one state.

Before the Sapienzas' house was built, the McDowells asked their soon-to-be neighbors to place the driveway between the two houses but were told that would violate the rules of feng shui.

“According to feng shui, you get a lot of negative energy from the north,” Josh Sapienza said during the original trial in June 2016.

Also during that trial, Johnson presented one witness, Lisa Nykamp of Sioux Falls, who said she and her husband had planned to buy the McDowells' home for $950,000 and $975,000, negotiating over what items would convey with the house.

They were looking to close the deal while the Sapienzas' new home was being built but backed out when Nykamp visited the McDowell home on a sunny day and found it in the shadow of the Sapienza house. She also was able to touch the scaffolding being used on the Sapienza home from the McDowells' property.

She said her husband told her to offer half of what they had offered.

“I said, ‘We can’t buy this house,’ ” she testified.

Perhaps the last straw for the McDowells was learning from a fire inspector that they could no longer use a wood-burning fireplace original to the house because it was within 10 feet of the Sapienza residence. The McDowells' home and the entire McKennan Park neighborhood has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984.

Johnson believes that the state Supreme Court's decision will stretch beyond the McKennan Park house, affecting how contractors approach projects in historic districts across South Dakota.

"It will be a guidepost for contractors," the lawyer said. "It will be a guidepost for architects, it will be a guidepost for the city and it will be a guidepost for homeowners.”

Contributing: Jonathan Ellis, (Sioux Falls, S.D.) Argus Leader.

It is great to work with the attorneys at Johnson, Janklow, and Abdallah. They always provide excellent advice and service that is second to none.

Mike Miller | former NBA player

The lawyers at Johnson, Janklow, and Abdallah are consistently ranked as the top business lawyers in the state. Our business can always count on them to aggressively fight for our rights and provide straight-forward advice on complex issues.

Mark McNeary | Primrose Retirement Communities, LLC

Lawyers from Johnson, Janklow, and Abdallah regularly participate in legal education by judging intramural student skills competitions; helping prepare our nationally competitive litigation skills teams; serving or leading the South Dakota State Bar's Law School Committee; and, from time to time , providing guest lecturers. The Law School is grateful for the generous participation of lawyers like those from Johnson, Janklow, and Abdallah.

Tom Geu | former Dean, USD School of Law