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Minnesota Supreme Court chamber
The Supreme Court chamber in the Minnesota Capitol. (File photo)

Public may use land bordering lake, justices rule

A strip of land in Itasca County has been the center of a hotly contested dispute over its use. Reversing the determinations of the lower courts, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the land could continue to be used by the public since it was dedicated to public use over 100 years ago.

The land in question is a plat bordering Trout Lake, a lake within the Chippewa National Forest. In 1912, it was dedicated to public use forever. While it was described in the dedication as a public road, there is no physical road. Instead, it is a sandy beach. A resort was built on a larger section of the plat, owned by Nancy Mayen. The resort and county agreed that the public would be able to continue to access the lake through the resort.

Mayen died in 2013. Timothy Moratzka was named the trustee of Mayen’s Residual Trust, and his task included selling the resort. He initiated a Torrens proceeding to register title to land, including the undeveloped road area. While Moratzka acknowledged that was a platted a public way, he asserted that there was no public road because no interest in the road was recorded within 40 years of the road’s dedication as was required under the Marketable Title Act (MTA). And interest barred by the 40-year requirement is presumed to have been abandoned under the statute.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Itasca County argued that the MTA did not extinguish the public interest. The district court issued summary judgment to Moratzka, finding that the public’s interest had been extinguished by the MTA. This decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. It found that the plain language of the MTA was unambiguous and included dedications that were made by recorded plat. Since there was no acceptance of the interest by the claimant, the court concluded, the MTA extinguished the public interest. Consequently, it determined that Moratzka was neither required to seek vacation of the public road, nor was he stopped from invoking the MTA to challenge the public interest in the land.

A map of Minnesota with county lines and Itasca County highlighted in orange

The land in question is a plat bordering Trout Lake in Itasca County. (Image: Minnesota Judicial Branch)

The question before the Minnesota Supreme Court was whether the MTA applied to interests dedicated to the public by plat. According to the statute, the MTA applies to “any right, claim, interest, incumbrance, or lien founded upon any instrument, event or transaction.” The parties, however, disputed whether a “plat” constituted an “instrument, event or transaction.” While the DNR and Itasca County claimed that a plat was not an instrument, event, or transaction, Moratzka claimed that a plat was obviously an instrument.

Moratzka claimed that plats are instruments because the term “instrument” is broad and extends to any document giving rise to a legal claim or right.

Allen Christy, attorney at DeWitt, represented Moratzka.

“It is an instrument,” Christy argued. “The plot is as much an instrument as, quite frankly, a transaction. It results from a survey. It affects the property rights. The legal descriptions in the plat substantially, effectively, replace the old legal description.” As plats are documents giving rise to legal claims and rights, Moratzka concluded, the MTA would apply.

Furthermore, Moratzka argued that the exceptions listed in the MTA did not specifically include platted interests. While the court found that this could support Moratzka’s argument, it also concluded that it was reasonable to believe that it was not listed in the exception because plats are not subject to the MTA at all.

Kenneth Bayliss, attorney at Quinlivan & Hughes, represented Itasca County. While the fate of one plat was before the court, Bayliss argued that the court’s decision would have broader implications.

“The Court of Appeals decision fetters real estate transactions by creating uncertainty,” Bayliss argued. “The decision interferes with the purpose of the Marketable Title Act by making the sale of property more uncertain and more difficult. If the decision below stands, most roads and plats more than 40 years old — and there are thousands of them in Minnesota — would be legally nonexistent.”

Several amicus curiae promoted the same argument. Itasca County, for instance, argued that if the ruling below had stood, that 108 of the 118 platted lake accesses in Itasca County would have been extinguished.

“The public interest is also particularly strong here, considering the consequences of upsetting well-settled expectations of towns, cities, and counties that would result by holding that the MTA can extinguish the public’s right to platted access,” the Supreme Court noted. “Moratzka’s interpretation of the MTA has the potential to imperil platted public access not only in Itasca County, but throughout the state.”

The court held that, taking into consideration the MTA’s statutory purpose and the consequences of Moratzka’s interpretation, the MTA does not operate to extinguish public interests properly dedicated by plat. It reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded to the district court.

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