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Were They Ready For the Country?

It seemed like the perfect small-town retreat. That was before the snowmobiles descended.



The 160-acre parcel of land that Leland Sarmont and Jeanne Faulkner bought in northern Wisconsin in 1992 lies in the middle of 200-to-300-foot hills eight miles from Lake Superior. The land is covered with maples, basswoods, yellow birches, blueberries, and Juneberries. The west fork of the Montreal River cuts through a corner of the property, carving a gorge with a stair-step falls, Rock Cut Falls, that drops 60 feet.

In the winter the area is covered with heaps of snow--the average is 200 inches--making it a good place for snowmobiling. When Sarmont and Faulkner moved there, snowmobiling was still a family sport, and they too had snowmobiles. But then the local chamber of commerce and local businesses, especially tavern owners, began promoting the sport outside the county. Soon hundreds, sometimes thousands, of snowmobilers were congregating each weekend in Hurley, a town of 1,800 people three miles east of Sarmont and Faulkner's property. They would start off drinking and carousing in the local bars, then go bounding out of Hurley into surrounding Iron County on more than 300 miles of trail cobbled together out of abandoned railroad rights-of-way, old logging trails, and sections of country road. When the snow disappeared, the same people--plenty of them from Chicago--came back to ride all-terrain vehicles down the same trails.

Sarmont and Faulkner were particularly upset because one popular trail--which meandered from Hurley to a tavern in Gurney, 15 miles away--ran for nearly a half mile across their property, along the river and then over an old 50-ton railroad bridge just below the falls. Sarmont, who calls the new crowd "high-testosterone cowboys, renegades in their late teens and early 20s," says, "We saw minor accidents and people hitting trees. Drunks dumped beer cans and bags of garbage. We were disgusted at what was occurring." The couple complained to county officials and asked that the trail across their land be closed, but the county balked.

Hurley had once been a bustling town serving the surrounding logging and iron-mining industries. But the logging industry died out, and then in the 1960s the last mine closed. The only untapped resource left seemed to be snow. Tina Louise Paruolo, director of the Hurley area chamber of commerce, says, "Snowmobiling is our biggest industry."

A 1995 survey by the Iron County Development Zone Council, a nongovernmental group focused on encouraging the local economy, reported that snowmobiling was pumping $15 million a year into gas stations, repair shops, motels, restaurants--and bars. Hurley alone has 31 bars--five of which are also strip clubs--that anchor Silver Street, the town's main drag. Michael Rosen, proprietor of a shoe store in Ironwood, Michigan, Hurley's twin city across the Montreal River, says, "People come up here to snowmobile, to drink, and to hit the titty bars."

Sarmont's stepgrandfather was Robert Merriam, the first independent alderman of Chicago's Fifth Ward, and Faulkner's father, Ronald Gunville, runs Abril, the venerable Mexican restaurant in Logan Square. When they were married in 1986, Sarmont, an electrical engineer, was working on Stealth-bomber technology at Northrop Corporation in Rolling Meadows, and Faulkner was teaching at a Catholic elementary school in Elmwood Park. A couple of years later they moved to Florida, where they both sold real estate for a while, then came back north in 1989.

Sarmont took a job in North Chicago with Target Corporation, which supplied radar systems to the military, and soon accused the company of using inferior parts in its products. "I blew the whistle on the company," he says proudly, adding that he then quit on principle. Target's president, Carol Oxley, says, "He was actually dismissed from the company, and I'd prefer not to say why." But she adds, "Lee has a gift as an engineer, and if he'd use his talents there he'd be happy, rather than getting into confrontational disputes." Oxley and the company's lawyer Thomas Dent both say that Sarmont's charges weren't true and that the U.S. attorney's office eventually dropped its preliminary investigation.

Sarmont then got engineering jobs at Brightly Galvanized Products in Cicero and at radio stations. Faulkner wasn't working, though she did study to get her Illinois real estate license.

Both of them had asthma, and it was getting worse. "We started looking for a place with clean air," says Sarmont. They considered a dozen states, and then they saw the Rock Cut Falls property listed in a real estate catalog.

Faulkner says she'd always been touched by stories her father used to tell about his father growing up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "I always thought it might be a good place to resettle," she says. "Rock Cut was the most reasonable price and the loveliest terrain. We came, we saw, we bought." They paid $27,000 for the land.

Sarmont had lined up a job with a local aircraft-instrument maker, but that fell through when the company moved to Mexico. He and Faulkner moved anyway. "This was everything I wanted in my life--beautiful land with a mountain and a river," she says. "Other people have their dreams, and this was mine." They rented for a while, then in 1993 bought a house in Ironwood. In 1994 they moved to a farm they bought in Iron Belt, a half dozen miles west of the Rock Cut Falls property.

Part of their dream was a plan to develop a spring that was near the old railroad bridge. They say that when they discovered the spring it was pumping out 72,000 gallons a day, a rate Sarmont determined using a bucket. They talked to one of Sarmont's old employers in Chicago about putting together an investor group and drew up plans to bottle the water as Rock Cut Falls Mountain Spring Water and sell it at NASCAR tracks. "Oh, all those thirsty people," says Faulkner. "This was better than gold. We said to ourselves, Wow! Wowie, zowie!"

They began excavating around the spring, but were worried that all the snowmobiles and ATVs racing past would pollute it. Moreover, they wanted to build their house nearby and didn't want to be bothered by all the noise and two-stroke-engine fumes. Sarmont says that in 1994 they spent $7,000 putting in a driveway to the spring, then asked the county to close the bridge or at least reroute the trail along the new driveway. They insist they were trying to be accommodating.

Tom Salzmann, the county forest administrator, says that every year several property owners ask that trails through their land be closed because of snowmobiles and ATVs. "Some people are concerned about their liability, and others get tired of the noise," he says. "Litter is also a problem." Usually the county complies by closing the trail. "If people say get out," he says, "we get out." But Sarmont and Faulkner had a bridge, and there weren't a lot of bridges over the river, nor were there a lot of good places to put another one. Salzmann says, "To relocate that bridge would require a lot of expense and effort."

Nothing happened with the couple's request. They continued to complain, and the rowdies and the people Faulkner calls "pear-shaped-fanny old doozies" continued to speed across their property. Sarmont says, "There were drunks going through at 90 miles an hour."

According to Sarmont and Faulkner, in October 1996 Iron County's corporation counsel, David Morzenti, threatened to cancel the county insurance that indemnified the couple if riders on the trail were injured. (Morzenti preferred not to comment.) "He said the county wasn't going to be in the habit of protecting private home owners," says Sarmont. "We told him that we'd just have to close off the trail."

But there was some question as to whether they had that right, because it had never been officially determined who owned the railroad right-of-way--and therefore the bridge--after it was abandoned. The county claimed ownership reverted to it. Sarmont and Faulkner, both libertarians, argued fiercely that the land and the bridge belonged to them. "The most important thing in life is freedom and individual rights," says Faulkner, who calls herself a follower of Ayn Rand. "The second most important thing is property rights."

The two parties began negotiating, with Morzenti speaking for the county, and in early 1997 they reached a compromise. The county would sell the bridge for $1 to Sarmont and Faulkner--who still insisted they already owned it but were willing to go along with a sale so that the record was clear that they owned it. They would be responsible for repairing the wood decking. The county would slightly reroute the trail, and it would retain the right to keep the trail open to the public for five years--though Sarmont and Faulkner were entitled to cancel the agreement if they gave the county 30 days' written notice.

The agreement was introduced and approved at the February meeting of the 15-member county board of supervisors. Shortly after that the state's governor, Tommy Thompson, came to Hurley to go snowmobiling, and one of the trails he used was the one across Sarmont and Faulkner's land. "After that," Sarmont claims, "everything flew apart."

At the March meeting of the county board the members adopted the minutes from the February meeting--but they specifically deleted the bridge-sale resolution. "We were fit to be tied," says Sarmont, who argued that a public body had no right trying to undo an action it had taken by making the record of it vanish.

Anthony Varda--a Madison lawyer who'd taken over the negotiations with Sarmont and Faulkner, though Morzenti still attended the meetings--says that the minutes were abridged because Morzenti was worried about granting the couple a 30-day cancellation clause and wanted the resolution torpedoed. Can the board void parts of its own minutes? "A public entity can do whatever it wants," says Varda. "It can amend its own rules. If any member of the board thinks there's been an impropriety, they can call the chair. But no board member ever did that. It's not for Mr. Sarmont to object."

But Sarmont did object, strenuously. The county agreed to start negotiating again, this time pushing for a longer cancellation clause. "Lee was difficult," says Varda. "It seemed that when he went home Jeanne said no to what we'd agreed to, and then he returned with a whole new set of ideas and concepts." He adds, "They kept making requests for public records, and they threatened to get the militia out."

Yet Varda says he sometimes agreed to clauses he found ludicrous, including one that read, "In the event of a national emergency, accident and/or incident as declared by a governmental body...the owner reserves the right to suspend all recreational activities on and public access to the property." He says, "In my 20 years of practice I'd never seen anything like it. But if they signed the contract, we were willing to go along." Sarmont responds that the clause was perfectly reasonable: "We were afraid that they would commandeer our water source."

Things got more acrimonious, and in May the county board asked Varda "to take appropriate action to secure public access to the Rock Cut bridge." Varda was then quoted in the local paper threatening to use eminent domain laws to condemn and appropriate the land. At the next board meeting Sarmont silently placed a 50-caliber shell on top of his briefcase. He explains, "I was saying, 'Enough of this horseshit.'"

Somehow the two sides kept negotiating, and by August another proposal sat on the table. Varda says the new pact was "a sweetheart deal" for the landowners. Sarmont and Faulkner disagreed. Some of the details were the same--the county could, for instance, use the right-of-way for five years--but instead of a 30-day cancellation clause there was now a one-year clause. And the county refused to reroute the trail. The county did offer to pay the couple $200 a year to use the bridge, which it explained could be seen either as a land-use fee (suggesting Sarmont and Faulkner owned the bridge) or as a fee for storing the bridge on their land (suggesting the county still owned the bridge). Sarmont and Faulkner didn't like that provision at all, because it didn't settle who owned the bridge. Varda says, "If the bridge is still there over the river, who cares who owns it technically? The bridge wasn't going anywhere--and neither was the county."

On August 13 Sarmont and Faulkner learned that the county was discussing setting up a committee to look into condemning the land that included the trail and bridge. They promptly barricaded the trail with concrete blocks and logs and railroad ties. Sarmont says that a meeting the next afternoon in Morzenti's office turned "hot, hot--yelling hot." He contends in an affidavit filed in court this January that "Mr. Morzenti referred to me as a 'kike,' and stated: 'Kikes can't own property.'" Sarmont says, "I said, 'Fuck you,' and we stormed out of there."

Morzenti wouldn't comment on this or other charges made by Sarmont and Faulkner. But Varda, who was in the office at the time, says, "I never heard any such thing, and I never, ever heard Dave Morzenti make any racial slurs. As a matter of fact, none of us even knew that Lee was Jewish. It had never been an issue. It was the most bizarre accusation to have come up."

In September the county started the process of condemning the land, stating that it wanted a 100-foot-wide swath for recreational use, even though the trail is only 16 feet wide. Faulkner suspected that the county wanted 100 feet because officials wanted to develop the spring for themselves or their friends. Varda responds that county officials had simply got tired of all the futile meetings with Sarmont and Faulkner: "It just got to the point where we had to cut it off."

The condemnation proceedings inched along over the next year and a half. The tiny town of Kimball, which includes Sarmont and Faulkner's land, protested that the county couldn't condemn land within its borders without its consent--something it wasn't willing to give. "That is not binding on the county," says Varda. Then in October 1998 Sarmont and Faulkner filed suit in U.S. District Court in Madison to block the condemnation.

Meanwhile, people had pushed aside the logs and concrete blocks Sarmont and Faulkner had put on their trail, and in November 1998 they hired a bulldozer to heap two stories of logs, trees, and rocks onto the path. "This barricade is a monument to people standing up to their government," said Sarmont as he stood atop the massive barricade on a sunny afternoon this March. "It is hideous--it's a nasty-looking thing," he admitted, then added that when he decided to build it "my feeling was sheer anger and hatred."

On December 1, 1998, a court-appointed commission ordered the land condemned but allowed the county to take only a 16-foot-wide swath instead of a 100-foot one. The next day Dave Schimke, the contractor who owns the property just east of Sarmont and Faulkner's, blocked his portion of the trail. "When the county condemned the trail through Jeanne and Lee's land, it was just like they were doing it to me," he says, adding that he barricaded his part of the trail "in retaliation." (The county subsequently agreed to let his blockade stay.) Then the owner of the property on the other side of Sarmont and Faulkner's land, Darlene Martinez, asked that her piece of the trail be closed too. Varda contends the county owns her section, but she blockaded it anyway. That made it impossible for anyone to get to Sarmont and Faulkner's portion of the trail. Faulkner says, "It's a trail going from nowhere to nowhere."

Two weeks after the condemnation order, the county sent in a bulldozer--not to remove the barricade, which is still standing, but to plow dirt into the hole Sarmont and Faulkner had excavated around the spring. Varda says the county was afraid that some snowmobile, ATV, or bicycle rider would fall into what he calls a three-story pit, though of course no one could use the trail.

Asked whether the county had the right to fill in a spring that Sarmont and Faulkner planned to develop, Varda says, "That 'artesian well' was nothing more than seepage from a shallow spring that had been held back by limestone, and it could easily be contaminated. We checked that out because if you condemn somebody's property and it could actually be put to a profitable business use, you'll have to pay a high price in compensation." Whatever was once there, it's now just a small crater with a meager amount of water bubbling through mud.

How did the county decide it wasn't an artesian spring? Varda explains that the county hired Ed Steigerwaldt, a land appraiser, to check it out. But Steigerwaldt (who didn't return phone calls for comment) only looked at the property from its corners and by flying over it in a plane. You can't see the spring from the corners, and Steigerwaldt never set foot on the property. He would have, says Varda, "except the missus threatened to shoot him if he tried." No, says Sarmont, she only said she'd have him arrested. Ultimately, the county used Steigerwaldt's findings to calculate that it owed Sarmont and Faulkner $3,520 for the bridge and the right-of-way, a sum the couple found insulting.

That same December the judge in Madison dismissed Sarmont and Faulkner's case, saying the court didn't have jurisdiction. Acting as their own attorneys, they then filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, but in June 1999 a panel of three judges agreed that the court had no jurisdiction. In January 2000 Sarmont and Faulkner refiled in Iron County; the case is still pending. In the meantime the county sued them for erecting the barricade and asked for at least $30,000 in damages.

In December 1999 Sarmont and Faulkner presented a new proposal to forest administrator Tom Salzmann in which they offered to pay to reroute the trail on their property if the county would build a new bridge somewhere else. So far, they've had no response.

"Of all the things that have happened to me," says Faulkner, "this is the worst. It's worse than being raped. How do I know? I have been raped. But at least with a physical assault your body heals--this has destroyed my psyche." Why did things get so ugly? Sarmont says, "The government is out to get us--and I'm not being paranoid." Her voice rising, Faulkner says, "The government is going after us because we won't obey orders to give up our property. The mind-set is that we're people from outside who are exposing nefarious activities in Iron County and upsetting their apple cart. And my husband is Jewish."

Sarmont and Faulkner haven't kept their sentiments to themselves. They have a Web site, where they note, "Iron County has a long-standing cultural tradition of anti-Indian, anti-Semitic and racist activity." As evidence, the site points out that Mike McQueeney, grand dragon of the national Ku Klux Klan, lives in Mercer, 20 miles south of Hurley. Asked what he thinks of the controversy, McQueeney says, "I don't know what's up with this."

Is there racism and bias against people from Illinois in Iron County? One public official who didn't want to be identified says, "Now I don't know how people up here would respond to an influx of Hispanics or coloreds, but a Jew or someone from Illinois--there's no problem with that." Shoe-store owner Michael Rosen, a fourth-generation Jew in the area, says he doesn't think even ten Jews live there now. He adds, "We're all prejudiced in a little sort of way, but I've never had a problem in Hurley or Ironwood. Leland [Sarmont] came in and stirred up a hornet's nest. People are pretty laid-back here. The bottom line is that he's antisnowmobiling and anti-strip club, and if you hurt their industry up here they're going to come out swinging."

Faulkner and Sarmont also claim that they're the targets of a pro-snowmobile cabal that includes Varda and leads all the way up to Governor Thompson, and they insist they're going to file a federal suit charging various officials with racketeering. Varda allows that the governor was once his neighbor in Madison and is more than an acquaintance, yet he denies being part of any conspiracy. He also characterizes the couple's charges of discrimination as nonsense. "Mr. Sarmont and Ms. Faulkner have succeeded in irritating people in Iron County in an unbiased way that has nothing to do with religion or where they come from," he says. "They are extremely abrasive, and they have rubbed people the wrong way."

Whatever local residents might think of Sarmont's and Faulkner's personal styles, many of them would agree with the couple when it comes to snowmobilers. In 1999, according to Jim Saari of the state snowmobile council, 38 snowmobilers died in accidents in Wisconsin, and at least a dozen of the fatalities were related to a combination of alcohol and high speed. In Iron County this past season, according to county sheriff Robert Bruneau, there were four snowmobile deaths, three of which involved alcohol and speed. Six home owners petitioned the county to close trails that ran across their land. "Frankly, I agree with them," says county treasurer Mark Gianunzio. "This [problem] has to be brought under control." Sarmont adds that a few weeks ago a 16-year-old on an ATV crashed head-on into a 12-year-old on a go-cart two miles east of the Rock Cut Falls bridge, seriously injuring the younger boy.

This March, Ewald Benter Jr., chairman of the town of Anderson, beseeched the county board to put a lid on snowmobiling. "Taverns, motels, restaurants and gas stations are the people making all the money from this business," he wrote the county clerk. "But the residents in the outlying areas must put up with trespassing, speeding, loud noise and obnoxious behavior from these 'throttle jockeys.'" He also wrote that if no action were taken--he wanted law-enforcement officers out on the trails during prime time--Anderson would likely close its plowed roads to snowmobile traffic.

The county is weighing hiring two more officers. Sheriff Bruneau thinks the riders also need to be more responsible. "We're concerned about people getting hurt on snowmobiles," he says, "but the biggest need is for them to behave responsibly--to leave alcohol alone and to watch their speed." There are no speed limits for snowmobiles in Iron County except on plowed roads, where it's 25 miles an hour. Saari's council is pushing state legislation that would establish at least a nighttime speed limit and would lift snowmobile privileges for anyone arrested for driving drunk.

Sarmont and Faulkner are now living on the farm in Iron Belt, which they share with two cats, a poodle, and a cockatiel. Faulkner is raising chickens, and Sarmont is working as a remodeler and solar-energy consultant. They hung on to the house in Ironwood, which Sarmont calls a backup in case the atmosphere grows so poisonous in Iron County that they need to move. They claim they can't build on the Rock Cut Falls property now because it's illegal to move equipment across the trail as long as the right-of-way is at least technically owned by the county.

Varda says that's ridiculous. "They can get across the right-of-way fine. It's like a public road. If the equipment did any damage, they'd have to restore the grade--but that's all."

Neither Sarmont nor Faulkner goes into Hurley much anymore. "I can't stand the people in Hurley," says Faulkner. But Sarmont goes to attend county board meetings, where he says the members look at him with "shark eyes." This past spring he ran for county supervisor himself, promising to root out government corruption. "It's our observation that candidates who run with an ax to grind generally don't make good representatives," read an editorial in the Ironwood Daily Globe, "and that appears to be the case with Sarmont, an Illinois transplant." Sarmont took the "Illinois transplant" reference as more proof of local bias, yet he managed to get into a run-off with the incumbent. He lost in the April general election, but his vote totals exceeded many people's expectations. "I wish he'd gotten in," says one officeholder who wanted to remain anonymous. "He'd have shaken up some ancient-history people on the county board."

Asked if the couple made any mistakes in the way they handled the whole situation, Faulkner says adamantly, "No." Sarmont says, "Yes. We've been too easygoing. We were too trusting of what was being told to us. If we had it to do all over again, we'd have been more hard-line right up front."

For more on Hurley see the Visitor's Guide on page 35.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Gerard Lauzon.

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