A Minnesota Supreme Court ruling has overturned an appellate court decision that would have allowed Winnebago Township couple Michael and Diane Fields to challenge Houston County in court.

On March 10, 2011, the Houston County Board of Adjustment granted an after the fact setback variance of 27 feet to Skyline Materials Ltd., after mining operations had removed overburden soils to within 23 feet of the Fields' property line without permission. The county's land use ordinance requires a 50-foot setback, and county staff had cited the Iowa-based company for the violation in the fall of 2010.

Board of Adjustment members visited the site with Michael Fields and company representatives prior to the vote. There were three conditions attached to the variance. First, material was to be brought back to the site to flatten the slope of the setback, which at that time dropped precipitously from the fence line area due to removal of soils. Secondly, the area was to be mulched and seeded, and lastly, a follow-up inspection was required to ensure that the work was completed by May 15.

Caledonia attorney Gregory B. Schultz appealed on behalf of the Fields. Houston County, represented by Jay Squires of Rupp, Anderson, Squires & Waldspurger of Minneapolis, asked for dismissal after the 30-day appeal deadline had run, stating that the document should have been served on the County Auditor or Board Chairman instead of with the County Attorney alone.

After District Judge Robert Benson ruled that the procedure used by the Fields' attorney was correct, the county appealed. In the appellate court ruling, a three-judge panel in Rochester agreed with Benson.

"The county then appealed this decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court with the Association of Minnesota Counties filing an amicus brief supporting Houston County's position," Schultz reported. Oral arguments were heard in St. Paul on April 1, 2013.

On Aug. 21, Justice G. Barry Anderson filed an 11-page syllabus outlining the court's stance. "Because the Fields did not serve their appeal on the county auditor or the County Board chairman within the time set forth in Minnesota Statute 394.24 subd. 9, the district court lacked jurisdiction and dismissal of the action necessarily follows. We are sympathetic to the plight of the Fields who served their appeal in good-faith reliance on the Court of Appeal's decision in Curtis. But making an exception here, even if we were free to do so, would be incongruous with the policy to construe the rules concerning the commencement of an action to provide a 'single, uniform course of procedure that applies alike to all civil actions...'"

The case was remanded to district court for dismissal.

The plaintiffs had asked the court to declare the granting of the variance void, asserting that the BOA was not empowered to take the action that they did. Alternatively, they requested that the variance be vacated, claiming that the BOA "failed to consider and make Findings with respect to the Variance Standards as set forth at Section 0110.1105 Subd. 2 of the Houston County zoning ordinance.

In addition, Schultz had requested that the company provide the zoning administrator with "a reclamation plan that is in compliance with the requirements of the Houston County zoning ordinance (Ordinance 0110.2608); An existing conditions map (Ordinance No. 0110.2605); An operation plan and map (Ordinance No. 0110.2606); A full and adequate description of all phases of the proposed operation to include an estimate of duration of the mining operation (Ordinance No. 0110.2604 Subd. 1 (6); and a performance bond (Ordinance No. 0110.2609).

Finally, the lawsuit sought an order requiring Skyline Materials "to replace all materials previously excavated from the encroachment area, and to provide appropriate ground cover," and asked for "such other and further relief as is just and equitable."