Just a year and a week after it officially became a new South Dakota municipality, a judge has ruled that the town of Buffalo Chip shouldn't be a town after all.
Fourth Circuit Judge Jerome Eckrich ruled late Friday that the census survey and map submitted by the Buffalo Chip Campground were not legal, and that people who voted in a referendum to approve the town did not technically live at addresses where they registered to vote.
Further, he ruled that the procedures followed by the Meade County Commission, which granted the Buffalo Chip’s petition to become a municipality, were in violation of state law.
The vote to approve Buffalo Chip as a town was challenged by the city of Sturgis, area landowners, and the South Dakota Municipal League, which filed an appeal soon after Meade County voted to allow a vote on incorporation.
The concept of Buffalo Chip, as a legal South Dakota town, is supported by and closely tied to prominent Sturgis businessman Rod Woodruff, whose sprawling Buffalo Chip Campground and campus thrives on the Sturgis motorcycle rally and is a well-known destination for rally campers and top entertainment acts.
Sturgis city officials, who fought the town idea, were elated with the ruling and said it was based on solid law.
"It's been a long 15 months," said Sturgis City Manager Daniel Ainslie. "We're happy and pleased that the court agreed with the contentions we made."
Chief among those contentions was that people who said they were residents of the area which would become the community of Buffalo Chip weren't really residents in the true sense.
"When the commission called them forward, they stated that they intended to perhaps move to the Buffalo Chip, but several stated on the record that they lived in other communities," Ainslie said.
The ruling also is a validation for voter rights in the state, Ainslie said.
"When someone says they are registered to vote in a certain area, we believe they actually have to live in the location," he said.
Kent Hagg, attorney for the city of Buffalo Chip, disputes the interpretation.
He said state law has no duration requirements for residents to vote in a certain location.
He points to the recent wheel tax vote in Pennington County, in which a sizable population of nomadic residents who register their address at a mail forwarding service in the county legally voted as absentees in the election.
Those people, he contends, spend most of the year traveling in recreational vehicles across the country, but are still eligible to vote in county elections because their address is in Pennington County.
Hagg isn't giving up on Buffalo Chip as a town.
"The state of South Dakota has and will continue to recognize Buffalo Chip as an acting municipality," he said. "And we will continue to conduct ourselves as such."
Hagg said he will appeal Eckrich's decision to the South Dakota Supreme Court.
"We would have liked to have seen a different outcome, but it's a long way from over," he said. "We will continue to fight."
A trial on the appeal by the city of Sturgis and landowners came before Eckrich on Wednesday, May 11. It began and ended that day in Fourth Circuit Court in Meade County.
Just three witnesses were called to testify — Gary Lippold, who owns land near the Buffalo Chip campground; Kirk Chaffee, Meade County Director of Equalization/Planning; and Jim "Wally" Walczak, Finance Officer for the Town of Buffalo Chip.
Greg Barnier, attorney for the city of Sturgis, said following the trial there was no set time frame for the judge to issue his decision, but both Sturgis city officials and Hagg were surprised the decision came so quickly.
The judge's ruling also found that the city's annexation of the Sturgis Municipal Airport was complete and valid, meaning that therefore, the town of Buffalo Chip was not three miles away from an existing city. State law says that separation is one of the requirements for becoming a municipality.
Voters who said they lived within the boundaries of the town of Buffalo Chip approved the incorporation of the town last May and in September, the town's board of trustees approved a city sales tax.