In what is the latest development in the eminent-domain dispute between the city of Preston and the local parties - John and Bernadette Snyder, Vernon and Kay Ristau - who refused to sell their property for the development of the DNR-proposed Forestville-Preston recreational trail, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has reversed and remanded the case back to the Fillmore County Third District Court.

Over 10 months have passed since Third District Court Judge Jeffrey Thompson handed down a decision in favor of the city of Preston on April 4, 2012. Six weeks after that decision, the Ristaus and Snyders appealed it for a number of reasons. These reasons included that they claimed the Minnesota Legislature had not authorized the creation of the Forestville-Preston recreational trail and that the city of Preston had improperly exercised the power of eminent domain.

On Feb. 11, Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Larry Collins with Judge Lawrence Stauber and under Presiding Judge Jill Halbrooks released an unpublished opinion paper that will be quoted throughout this report. The appeals court's decision, as an unpublished opinion, will not be used in future cases' decisions as a precedent-setting example.

The opinion paper first highlights the facts of the case and then hands down the court's decision in two brief sections. It begins by pointing out that this all began in 1993 when the city of Preston formed a Joint Powers Board with other nearby cities to move forward a plan to make a recreational trail that would run from Preston to Forestville State Park. It then stated that the DNR wanted to purchase the trail after Preston developed it.

All of the property along the proposed trail route was purchased by 2003, except the Ristaus' and Snyders'. On March 2, 2009, after making several offers to the landowners, the Preston City Council passed a resolution to exercise eminent domain. In the district court case, Judge Thompson decided the Preston City Council had the right to exercise eminent domain and that the proposed trail was authorized under Minnesota Statute law.

In the decision portion of the unpublished opinion paper, the appeals court states, "But beyond listing these statutes as authority for creation of the proposed trail segment, the district court provided no explanation of its analysis or interpretation of the statutory language applied to the facts presented."

With that, the case will head back to Judge Thompson for his review and further clarification.

According to Judge Collins's decision, in which he quoted a preceding case brief from 2000, it explains that interpreting legal language in statutes requires that "no word, phrase or sentence should be deemed superfluous, void or insignificant." The paper then goes on to look at the pair of statutes involved in the case.

According to Minn. Stat. 85.015, subd. 7(b), "Additional trails may be established that extend the Blufflands Trail system to include La Crescent, Hokah, Caledonia, and Spring Grove in Houston County; Preston, Harmony, Fountain, Wykoff, Spring Valley, Mabel, Canton, and Ostrander in Fillmore County; Rochester, Dover, Eyota, Stewartville, Byron, and Chester Woods County Park in Olmsted County; and Winona, Minnesota City, Rollingstone, Altura, Lewiston, Utica, St. Charles, and Elba in Winona County. In addition to the criteria in section 86A.05, subdivision 4, these trails must utilize abandoned railroad rights-of-way where possible."

This statute, according to the court's decision, gives the DNR authority to create and manage trails in those sections. The paper also cites subdivision 7 from that same statute as allowing other trails to be created along the trail system. According to the judge's decision, "This explicit exclusive list is subject to only one interpretation and is unambiguous."

It does not contain Forestville State Park or the title "Forestville" in the statute. In a footnote to that part of the decision, it was noted that at the oral argument presented to the appeals court, the city of Preston considered the Preston-to-Forestville segment of the trail as a part of a future extension to make a Preston-to-Ostrander trail, which would be authorized under statute.

The opinion paper goes on to discuss the second statute, Minn. Stat. 86A.05, subd. 4, which is part of the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act (ORA) of 1975. According to a footnote the judge included in the decision, "It is clear by the language's placement within Minn. Stat. 85.015, subd. 7(b), that its intent is to place conditions on any expansions authorized by the section." Minn. Stat. 86A.05 is referenced in Minn. Stat. 85.015, subd. 7(b).

Furthermore, the judge wrote, "We determined above that section 85.015, subdivision 7 (b), does not authorize the Preston-to-Forestville segment of trail."

He concluded the footnote by saying that it didn't need any more analysis by the appeals court because "any condition that section 86A.05, subdivision 4, may impose presupposes trail authorization under section 85.015, subdivision 7 (b)."

The opinion paper went on to say that state trails can be created as long as they meet the criteria. At that point, the judge determined that the district court failed to analyze ORA and "did not explain how it found Minn. Stat. 86A.05, subd. 4, to be an independent authorization for a 'unit' within the ORA."

The judge then wrote they needed the district court to provide additional findings, which would show the facts or opinions that were influential in the district court's decision or to show that they considered all of the criteria for creating a trail. It should also, the paper reads, "articulate how it resolves the parties' arguments pertaining to the ORA and how it is that Minn. Stat. 86A.05, subd. 4, can independently authorize the creation of a state trail 'unit' within the broader definition of the 'system.'"

It then officially sent the case back to the district court.

The second section of the decision details the right of exercising eminent domain in this case can only be determined if the trail is authorized.

Both sides commented on the recent ruling. "It feels good, but it isn't done yet," shared John Snyder. "I felt hopeful after the November hearing. The judges were paying attention."

Snyder's attorney, Larry J. Peterson from Peterson, Logren & Kilbury of St. Paul, stated, "For once we've had a court that took a serious look at our strong, legal argument."

Peterson thinks there is a real likelihood the district court will agree with the court of appeals decision, noting if the case went back to the court of appeals, "they have already signaled that this trail was never approved."

Peterson added since there is nothing factually that can be added to the case, that the court of appeals could make a final decision if they appeal the decision to remand the case to the district court. He said it would be more cost effective to his clients that the case be resolved as soon as possible, which would be at the court of appeals.

Speaking for the city of Preston, attorney Dwight Luhmann said, "Speaking as the city's attorney, we don't agree with the decision of the court of appeals."

He explained he was confident "it will be ultimately decided in the city's favor."

Part of his reasoning is "the city of Preston has always maintained that the Forestville-to-Preston trail is a segment of the Bluffland trail system. The city of Preston has never identified Forestville as a destination, but that the entire trail is just a segment."

He also pointed out that the state has already appropriated $985,000 for the Forestville-to-Preston trail alone, which would be unnecessary if the trail wasn't authorized by statute.

It is currently not known when the district court will release another revised or clarified decision.