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Paynesville Press - Dec. 4, 2002

Eden Lake Township faces lawsuit

By Bonnie Jo Hanson and Michael Jacobson

Eden Lake Township is being sued in Stearns County District Court for more than $100,000 for denying a platting request.

The lawsuit stems from the township's denial of a six-lot plat in 2001. Township residents Joe and Karen Alvord requested platting the lots and their plat request was denied by the township board in June 2001 and their appeal was denied by the township's board of adjustment in August 2001.

While the case is being decided in court, neither township officials nor the Alvords will talk freely about the dispute, but the Press has used court records, township meeting minutes, and other township records to gather insight on the case.

In the lawsuit, the Alvords claim they complied with all of the applicable requirements for the platting and that the township's denial of their plat request and their appeal was "arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and contrary to law."

The plat denial, they argue, caused them to suffer damages including the loss of the use of their property and loss of potential income. They are asking for in excess of $100,000 (at least $50,000 in damages and at least $50,000 for loss of use of its property). Plus they seek reimbursement for their attorney's costs and court fees and the right to develop six residential lots on the property as requested.

The Alvords also claim that a moratorium the township placed on platting has denied them the use of their property. (The township board enacted a one-year ban on platting in Eden Lake Township in July 2001 and extended this ban for another 18 months – or until a new zoning ordinance is finished – in September 2002.)

The township's reply to the lawsuit denies that the Alvords complied with all the applicable requirements for the platting, denies that the township acted in a manner that was "arbitrary, capricious, unreasonable, and contrary to law," admits to enacting a moratorium against all platting in the township, but denies that this deprived the plaintiffs of due process of law.

In its defense, the township claims that it is immune from liability (according to Minnesota Statute 466), that the plaintiff's claims should be barred, and that the plaintiffs have failed to exhaust administrative remedies.

In April 2001, the Alvords made their platting request – to develop six lots on 40 acres of property – to the township. The township board denied the Alvords' preliminary plat on in June 2001, citing the need "to avoid encroachment of prime farmland and farm operations" and "preserve woodlands and wildlife areas" according to sections 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 of the township zoning ordinance.

Section 2.0 reads: It is the purpose and intent of this ordinance to identify and classify such lands lying within the boundaries of Eden Lake Township, for which the proper long term use is agricultural and to preserve and protect said agricultural land from excessive encroachment by non agricultural uses.

Section 2.1 reads: The purpose and intent of this Ordinance is to protect the public health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens of Eden Lake Township; to promote orderly development of the residential, commercial and recreational areas; to conserve the natural and scenic characteristics of the area; and in particular to preserve the family farm operation by preventing conflict among urban and rural areas.

Section 2.2 reads: The Board of Supervisors of Eden Lake Township further finds that residential development must be accommodated, but that residential development should be directed away from agricultural land.

At the meeting, township board chairman Conrad Blomker said that he disagreed with the plat request because putting homes between agricultural areas will cause problems for farm operations. Residents, he said, would complain about odors when manure is spread or injected, residents would complain about noise from farm machinery, and he believes setbacks between farms and residential areas will most likely continue to get larger.

Board supervisor Johnathan Schaumann said last week that he thought it was difficult to deny the Alvord's request. "Anything like that is difficult. There are always pros and cons, and you can't go by your feelings," he said. "You want to keep peace in the family. We all (the township board) thought we were right, and the Alvords thought they were right also."

In their original denial, the township board also cited that "this property was rezoned residential and issued a conditional use permit for the sole purpose of expanding a campground as requested by the Alvords with no mention of residential homes being put in."

In 1999, the Alvords – who own Morning Star Resort and Campground – were issued a conditional use permit by the township that allowed them to expand their campground on part of the 40-acre property, which was zoned to be residential. Prior to that, the property had been used for ag operations and was considered agricultural property by the township, said Blomker.

In their appeal before the township's board of adjustment (which includes the township supervisors as well as members of the township's planning board) in August 2001, Joe Alvord said their original intention was not to develop the property but the idea had come since 1999 as "a good way to recoup the expenses involved with the expansion."

At the appeal, the Alvord's attorney argued that the plat was a permitted use in a residential zoning district, that it met all ordinance requirements, that the proposed plat was done in an orderly fashion, and that denial would cause a hardship for the Alvords.

The Alvords' appeal was denied. According to the Findings and Decision on Appeal of Denial of Application of Morning Star for Platting Subdivision Property, "The Subject Property was rezoned and the conditional use permit was granted and issued by the Town Board to Applicant in consideration of the representations made by Applicant at that time, which included that Applicant would only use the Subject Property for a recreational campground and would not place any residential development on the Subject Property."

The ruling also states that because all of the property is subject to the conditional use permit there is no density (the number of residential lots allowable) available for the property.

However, the Press obtained copies of the Alvords' 1999 conditional use permit and their conditional use application, and neither document listed any limits on future platting. Angie Berg of Stearns County Environmental Services told the Press that the 10-12 acres used for the campground expansion has no bearing on how much of the property can be developed, as far as the county is concerned.

The denial of the appeal goes on to state, "The township land use plan identifies areas for residential development by the city of Eden Valley and along major roadways."

In several points, the ruling notes the need to keep residential development away from agricultural areas, citing sections 2.0, 2.1, and 2.2 of the township zoning ordinance. The ruling states, "Family farm operations would be adversely affected by residential platting and development because residents would live there year-round and infringe on manure handling, planting, harvest and other farm operations normally done in the spring and fall. Campground occupants that currently utilize the Subject Property are usually present during the summer season and not at times when the majority of manure handling, planting, and harvesting is done."

"The Eden Lake Township land use plan states that the most important activity within the township is agricultural and that steps should be taken to preserve agricultural land by directing residential growth to the City of Eden Valley and along major roadways," the ruling adds.

The Alvords' property, however, is zoned R-10 by the county (as of April 2000), which allows one residential unit per each 10 acres of property or four lots (40 acres ÷ 10 = 4 lots).

By clustering development (concentrating lots on part of the property and allowing the rest of the land to remain open or in ag production), the Alvords, according to the county, could qualify for a bonus of two additional lots, as long as the lots are at least one acre but not larger than two acres in size and meet all setback requirements.

The township's denial also contends that the property "contains environmentally sensitive wooded and wetland areas."

The county's siting standards for cluster developments does list these goals (to be achieved to the extent practical): to avoid prime farmland soils and avoid interference with agricultural operations; to minimize fragmentation of agricultural lands; and to minimize disturbance to woodlands and other significant vegetation.

The Alvords filed their lawsuit in Stearns County District Court three months ago, on Thursday, Aug. 15. The township – through an attorney hired by their insurance company – filed a response on Monday, Aug. 19. Since then, the attorneys have agreed to suggested deadlines for the lawsuit, which the court issued in a scheduling order in October. Unless a settlement is reached, the discovery phase should end in April 2003, requests for mediation should be made by June 2003, a pretrial conference would be held in July 2003, and a jury trial could take place in October 2003.

Neither the Alvords nor their attorney returned phone calls from the Press last week, but Tom Jovanovich, the attorney hired by the township's insurance company to represent the township, said he would be interested in settling the case. He said he sent a settlement offer but has not received a response.

According to Blomker, the township board never tried to reach a compromise with the Alvords. He said the township board has held fast to the opinion that the Alvords' property is subject to the conditional use permit and should only be used for a campground, not for residential development.

He also said the township carries insurance that would pay at least part of any judgment against the township, should the court decide in the Alvords' favor.

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