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No eminent domain proceedings for Burr Oak extension

Fri, Aug 14th, 2009
Posted in Government

The Chatfield City Council took the possibility of eminent domain off the table as a method to acquire property needed for the Burr Oak extension at the council's August 10 meeting. City Attorney Fred Suhler had followed the council's July 23 instructions to make one last effort to acquire needed property by certified mail with a formal offer to Isabelle French. The letter asked for a response within five working days and received no response at all. However, Mrs. French and Lanny Isensee and other interested parties were in attendance this day.

A resolution had been prepared and was voted down. The resolution would have allowed the city attorney to exercise the power of eminent domain as set forth in Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 117, to acquire property for a public street and in the public interest. Councilors Josh Thompson, Paul Novotny, and David Frank voted not to adopt the resolution. Councilors Ginny Engle and Ken Jacobson voted in favor of the resolution.

City Clerk Joel Young, in a memo to the councilors, stressed the need to move the project forward or to cancel it. He warned of the city's increasing liability to the contractor with the many weeks of indecision from the divided council. He noted the negative sentiment of the public toward eminent domain, but spelled out the financial loss faced by the city with the cancellation of the project. The city will loose nearly $700,000 promised for the project by Olmsted County. The more than $200,000 spent by the city in preparation for the project will yield nothing.

Young expressed a need for eminent domain sometimes for a "true public purpose" to develop infrastructure. Land was required from three property owners. One agreed fairly early. The alignment of the road was shifted to go around another one. One more remained. He insisted there was "never any question on the part of the city that the demands of the property owner could not be met." These demands included an agreed upon price, appropriate fencing, appropriate field approaches installed, the city would acquire land to place a storm water structure, and other parties would be satisfied. He also states the city believed the "satisfaction clause" would only involve those property owners which were to sell right-of-way.

Discussion Before the Vote

Mayor Les Knutson made it clear from the beginning of the discussion that the issue needed to be resolved so they could move on.

Josh Thompson expressed his opposition to eminent domain. He said he had spoken to a member of the Olmsted County Board who suggested that the money could still be there. Thompson said he was not convinced the road was vital.

Paul Novotny remarked that the road was still needed, but that this exact project is probably done with, even though there has been a tremendous amount of work completed in preparation to date.

Ginny Engle insisted the road was very important and she said she was elected to do what is right for Chatfield. She stated it was unfortunate for the whole city to suffer when the council could not work with a few people.

David Frank said he had spoken to several people about the issue and most were against. Some who were in favor of the project said they thought the extension would decrease traffic on Burr Oak, Frank thought it would increase traffic. He was uneasy about the way the whole thing evolved.

Ken Jacobson stressed the importance of looking at this from the taxpayer's point of view. This was an opportunity to have another access on the North side of town that could extend our community. We are spending money and getting nothing for it and it will probably cost more than we think. He insisted eminent domain is a distasteful legal process, but "otherwise infrastructure doesn't happen in our communities." He said it is necessary and urged the others to adopt the resolution.

Most councilors indicated they discussed the issue with residents over the weekend. The positions of each of the councilors was unchanged from previous discussions of the issue over the last several weeks.

What Happens Next

With the failure of the resolution there was further discussion. Thompson was not sure they had been informed correctly about the loss of the money from Olmsted County. Knutson commented there are no absolutes with the money. Olmsted County Commissioner Matt Flynn may still want to provide the funding, but as Knutson made clear, the Olmsted County Board would have to vote to extend the funding offer.

Suhler remarked he has watched the council vote three times against moving this project forward. He stressed that the reality is the city has entered into a contract with Winona Mechanical. Whether that contract was entered into in haste or with bad advice isn't the issue. Suhler went on to insist that the more they go on without dealing with the contract, the more the financial risk. Knutson added that the grace period would soon be over. He suggested the greatest unknown is the subcontractors.

Suhler advised the councilors to let Winona Mechanical know we no longer will go forward with the project. He warned of the potential litigation consequences. The council directed Suhler to draft a letter notifying the contractor of the city's decision to abandon the project and to not honor the contract.

Other Business In Brief

• The council discussed a possible moratorium on Outdoor Wood Burners (OWB's). Planning and Zoning had discussed the need for regulation or an out right ban. Suhler didn't think this was a zoning issue. He suggested if the council wants to stop use of OWB's, pass a law to do that. Joel Young said members of Zoning felt they may be appropriate in large lots. Jacobson was concerned that during the period the issue is being studied, OWB's may be installed that would not be in compliance with a future ordinance. The issue was tabled and sent to committee.

• Mayor Knutson reported that the city did make some mistakes with the Burr Oak extension. He thought they had a chance to move forward, but said the council doesn't wish to.

See page 31 for series of meetings and events that led to the discussion and decisions made at this Chatfield City Council meeting.

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