Judge reverses ruling in eminent domain case
Wednesday, July 17, 2013 3:29 AM
The City of Preston v. Ristau and Snyder case over the legality of the Preston-to-Forestville recreational trail segment has been dismissed by the Third Judicial District Court.
The decision was handed down on July 8 by District Court Judge Jeffrey D. Thompson, who reversed his initial ruling that the trail was legal under statute. This decision may still go through post-trial motions if engaged by the city.
If the city does not appeal, the final decision by Thompson will allow the Ristaus and Snyders to keep their land, which would have been used to complete the Preston-to-Forestville segment of trail. If this is the case, their legal fight against the use of eminent domain will, after several years, be over.
The foundation for this case was formed in 1993 when the city of Preston formed a Joint Powers Board with nearby cities to create a recreational trail running from Preston to Forestville State Park. The city worked with the DNR from 1998 to 2003 in acquiring contracts from landowners willing to sell their land for the purpose of the trail. Out of 19 land parcels needed, 17 were acquired by the State of Minnesota in 2004.
The land still needed for the trail was approximately six acres owned between Vernon and Kay Ristau and John and Bernadette Snyder.
After several unsuccessful negotiations that lasted to 2009, the city of Preston passed a resolution on March 2, 2009, invoking eminent domain. The Ristau and Snyder families sued the city later in the year. District Court Judge Thompson ruled in favor of the city on April 4, 2012, and the case was appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
An unpublished opinion was handed down by the court on Feb. 11, 2013, remanding the case back to the District Court for further clarification on the decision made by Thompson. Within the appeals court's opinion, Judge Larry Collins stated that under statutory law, the court felt the recreational trail was not authorized.
The appellants appealed the remand by petitioning the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court rejected their petition on April 16 and sent the case back to Thompson. In his review, Thompson presented 25 findings of facts followed by a conclusion, which stated the city of Preston is "not presently authorized by Minnesota Statute to take the landowners' real property for the proposed Preston to Forestville State Trail."
The statutes in question were Minnesota Statute 85.015, subd. 7(b) and Minnesota Statute 86A.05, subd. 4. The latter statute is part of the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Act (ORA) of 1975, which Thompson stated did not independently authorize the trail segment. That statute is cited within Stat. 85.015 subd. 7(b), which states where trails may extend within the Blufflands Trail system. The statute does not contain Forestville.
The city of Preston argued the Preston to Forestville segment would be part of a trail to Ostrander, which would be authorized under statute. The appeals court noted in its opinion paper that they felt the proposed trail segment was not authorized.
In Thompson's memorandum of law, he stated, "Nowhere in these two statutes is there anything specifically authorizing the development of the Preston to Forestville State Trail," effectively reversing his previous ruling.
He further explained, "The apparent direct connection between Preston and Ostrander seems implied, but is not clearly stated."
He cited Findings of Fact No. 25, which explained there were abandoned railroad rights of way that connect the list of statutorily accepted cities, but bypass Forestville.
In concluding, Thompson said the recreational trail wasn't approved by the Legislature. He also dismissed the action of eminent domain.
The appellants' lawyer Larry J. Peterson of Peterson, Logren & Kilbury of St. Paul attorney firm agreed with the judge's decision and said his clients were ecstatic at the decision.
"I tip my hat off to him [Judge Thompson]," shared John Snyder. "He made it right. I'm glad to see that the system is working."
Snyder said further that the decision took a weight of his shoulders. The Snyders and Ristaus had been fighting the eminent domain case since the city council's decision.
City of Preston attorney Dwight Luhmann said they were disappointed in the decision and felt like it came from a narrow reading of the statutes.
"The decision seems to put it back in the hands of the Legislature," stated Luhmann, adding that it could set a bad precedent for future state trails if the Legislature has to amend the current statutes.
Luhmann pointed out that 11 out of the 18 state trails created under Minnesota Statute 85.015 were not directly specified.
"It changes how trails are developed in the state," he said.
Ultimately, the Preston City Council will decide whether to continue pursuing this case, a decision Luhmann said would not be made until a future city council meeting.
The city has some options, including requesting new findings of facts and, potentially, requesting a new trial.
If this is the case, there will be more to come on this issue.