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Itasca County loses lakeside land dispute

Inaction nullifies gift of ‘public use forever'

Laura Brown//April 15, 2022//

Itasca County loses lakeside land dispute

Inaction nullifies gift of ‘public use forever'

Laura Brown//April 15, 2022//

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In 1911, a strip of land in Itasca County was dedicated “to the public use forever.” As of April 11, 2022, the Minnesota Court of Appeals determined that is no longer the case in In the Matter of the Application of Timothy D. Moratzka, Trustee of the Nancy L. Mayen Residual Trust.

The land in question is a 30-foot-wide strip that abuts Trout Lake in Itasca County. Back in 1911, the land was owned by Healy C. Akeley. After the dedication, no public entity took action in relation to the land.

This public way caused tensions between the county and property owners over the years. In 1967, the property owners sought to vacate the public way but were blocked by the county board. In 1985, the county attempted to make the public way into an actual roadway, but property owners sued to block that plan. Instead, county and property owners compromised, resulting in just a sliver of the public easement remaining — essentially a beach area. The public was to access the area by way of County Road 326.

In 2008, nearly 100 years after the public use dedication, the Nancy Mayen Residual Trust purchased three parcels of land, two of which are represented by the accompanying figure. In 2019, Timothy Moratzka, acting as trustee, filed a Torrens application to register title, arguing that the trust had a fee simple interest in the parcels.

Moratzka asked the district court to adjudicate the trust’s title to the parcels free of any encumbrances, asserting that the public’s interest was abandoned under the Minnesota Marketable Title Act (MTA) since no interest was recorded by a public entity within 40 years of the dedication.

At district court, Moratzka was granted summary judgment, as the court disagreed that Moratzka was estopped from denying the public way’s existence since it was not vacated under Minnesota’s road vacation statute.

At the Court of Appeals, the question was whether the MTA applied in this case. The MTA serves to protect property owners from having titles under the control of ancient records by requiring interest in property to be recorded within 40 years of creation of the interest. So long as the interest is not recorded, that constitutes conclusive evidence that the interest has been abandoned, resulting in the extinguishment of the interest.

Appellants argued that the MTA did not apply in this case, where there was a dedication made in recorded plats. The court notes that in a subdivision called “Limitations; certain titles not affected,” there is no exclusion for dedications to the public made by plat. It maintained that, by the plain language of the statute, the MTA must apply to land dedicated by plat to public use.

When the public is given an interest in land, it must follow the MTA. But appellants note that dedication through a plat is different. The plat was recorded, which the appellants argue constitutes providing “actual notice” of the dedication. Recording of the plat, they maintain, should preclude abandonment.

The court disagreed with this argument, citing the absence of case law. “While it is true that Akeley created the interest by recording the 1911-12 dedication with Itasca County, there was no act of acceptance by the claimant,” the court wrote. As actual notice or recording of dedication by plat do not satisfy the MTA’s requirement, there is no exception for platted public ways, the court held.

Even though Akeley dedicated the land, he maintained fee-simple ownership of the land. The trust retains fee-simple ownership of the roadway, as successor-in-interest to the parcels. As no claimant recorded an interest to the property within 40 years, the conclusive presumption of abandonment applied, the court reasoned.

Alternatively, the court argued that Moratzka was estopped from challenging the easement on the parcel. But Moratzka would only be estopped from asserting that the plat was validly created, which he did not. Moratzka asserts that, while the plat was validly created, the roadway was abandoned. The court agreed, holding that the MTA extinguished the dedication since it was never accepted.

Finally, the appellants argued that the interest could only be extinguished through the road-vacation process and that application of the MTA would not eliminate this requirement. The court disagreed, arguing that there is no exception to the MTA and that there is no evidence that the road vacation statute is more specific than the MTA.

Itasca County Attorney Matti Adam said the county is considering its options following the decision.

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