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Perspectives: Road warriors: Recent rulings reflect rare reversals

“Two roads diverged … and I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all of the difference.”

Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken (1915)

Road litigation is a rarity for the Minnesota appellate court system.

But the Court of Appeals recently decided a bundle of them, upholding two concurrently in the middle of the winter, and two more this spring by the Court of Appeals, and one by the Supreme Court. They followed on the heels last summer of another road-related case that involved a landlocked homeowner in the small town of Hillman.

The couple of concurrent rulings resulted in rare reversals, in whole or in part, of the lower court decisions in Aitkin and Carver counties, while the quintet of decisions reflect the direction the court is taking in these respective road rulings.

Dedication decision

A road-related case that received ample attention was a decision of the Minnesota Supreme Court last month concerning a strip of land bordering the Chippewa National Forest in Itasca County in In re Application of Moratzka, 2023 WL 2674596 (Minn. March 29, 2023). The tribunal held that a road was to be used for public access to Trout Lake, pursuant to a 1912 dedication, rejecting the claim by the Trustee of the property that there was no public access recorded within 40 years, as required under the Minnesota Marketable Title Act, Minn. Stat. § 541.023. See “Public may use land bordering lake, justices rule” in the April 10, 2023, edition of Minnesota Lawyer.

The decision avoided jeopardizing many roads and plats more than 40 years old and was applauded by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and several counties.

But the other road cases did not receive as much public scrutiny.

Realignment ruling

A homeowner who successfully petitioned the township of Spalding in Aitkin County to realign an access route, which is known as a cartway, over adjacent property owned by a business entity challenged the amount to be paid to the adjoining landowner as determined by the Aitkin County District Court in Heggermeyer v. Spalding Township, 2023 WL 2125962 (Feb. 21, 2023)(unpublished).

The general assessment was done under Minn. Stat. § 164.07, subd. 5, 164.08, subd. 2 (c), which requires payment “by the petitioning land owner to any burdened land owner” in connection with establishment of road or cartway across the other’s property. The lower court “erred as a matter of law” in expanding the “before-and-after” rule with respect to assessment of damages. Under that standard, the amount to be paid is to be based upon the difference in market value immediately of the road area “immediately before the taking and the market value of what is left after the taking.”

Marshall H. Tanick

Marshall H. Tanick

The landlocked homeowner claimed that the trial court erred in calculating damages and that he should be required to pay a lesser amount of damages. The appellate court agreed and reversed and remanded from recalculating the amount.

As a threshold matter, the court has jurisdiction because defenses of lack of real parity in interest and absence of an indispensable party were not raised below and, therefore, would not be considered on appeal. But even had those defenses been timely raised in the lower court proceedings, they lack merit. The co-trustee off the entity that held title to the land  had standing and was the proper party to bring the lawsuit.

Under Minnesota law, damages in cartway cases usually are determined by the difference in the fair market value of the “burdened property” in which the cartway is located before and after it is established. The lower court erred in calculating damages because it included a separate measure of damages for existing improvements to the land, while failing to base the damage award on the actual fair market value of the portion taken for the cartway and any diminution in that value of the remaining property resulting from the cartway.

The damage award was overly generous because the trial judge deviated from the “before-and-after rule,” which focuses solely on market value without boosting it due to the value of existing improvements to the land, such as a railroad bed, which is not to be calculated separately but “only to the extent that it impacts the fair market value of the property” prior to and following the establishment of the cartway.

Accordingly, the lower court’s determination of damages was reversed and remanded for further ascertainment.

Assessments Appeal

 An appeal concerning special assessments for unimproved property used for residential development resulted in a partial victory for the claimant in JMH Land Development Co., LLC, v. Siegle Family Limited Partnership, 2023 WL 2125965 (Feb. 21, 2023)(unpublished). The case was brought as a breach-of-contract claim by a family partnership that was located partly inside and partially outside the border of the city of Waconia in Carver County. It previously sold land inside the border to a developer for a planned multi-phase residential development project and then, 15 years later, sold land primarily outside the municipal boundary to a different developer.

The prior developer, who purchased the land 15 years ago, had signed a contract with the city agreeing to pay it one-third of its costs for a $750,000 road project and further stating that the remainder would be paid through special assessments against the remainder of the multi-phase development project. When the city learned about the family’s planned sale of the land that was outside the city, coupled with an annexation application by the new developer, it demanded that the family pay what the prior developer had promised to do. The family, which was not a party to the contract, refused to do so, resulting in a lawsuit by the current developer against the family for breaching the contract.

The Carver County District Court granted summary judgment to the current developer, requiring the family to pay the costs of the road project, as previously agreed to by the prior developer.

The trial court had ordered the payment of second property owner to pay $343,683, plus allowing fees and costs, pursuant to the underlying contract. But the appellate court reversed, holding that none of the three qualifying conditions for payment was satisfied. There was no levied special assessment referenced under the contract because there had been no “special assessment process undertaken by municipality. Nor was there any “pending special assessments,” which was not defined in the contract, but was construed by the court to mean “pending” before closing of the transaction, and there was none of record.

Further, the contractual provision for payment of any fee or costs “related to the development … or construction of improvements on the property” also was not satisfied because there were no costs that were “ascribed to the property.” Because the city lacked any enforceable legal claim against the seller, the seller had no “duty to pay.”

However, the court partially affirmed the lower court ruling because the undisputed facts bar the family’s counterclaim alleging that the developer had delayed sending the family an environmental report in bad faith in the absence of evidence of any “improper motive” underlying the two-plus-month delay.

Therefore, the lower court decision was reversed in part; affirmed in part, and remanded.

Shared suit

Disputes over a shared road led to a lawsuit between Crow Wing County neighbors in Neiman v. Sandin, 2023 WL 2674596 (Minn. App. April 17, 2023)(unpublished). The District Court there ruled in favor of one of the property owners and awarded damages for breach of contract and unjust enrichment for improvements made to the route and interference with contract.

The losing litigant challenged the damages on grounds that an agreement between the parties provided for an exclusive $800 payment. But any error by the lower court in awarding additional damages was harmless because the amount awarded by the trial court was the proper measure of harm for breach of contract, anyway.

Thus, the trial court’s ruling and award of damages was affirmed.

This quartet of recent road cases follow another ruling by the appellate court last summer in which a landlocked homeowner couple in Kanabec County lost their attempt to require the township to maintain the road going to and from the property in Crisman v. Hillman Township, 2022 358186 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 22, 2022)(unpublished), rev. den’d. (Nov. 23, 2022). While expressing “our sympathy” for the landlocked couple who lived at the end of the road, the jurists concluded that the city had no authority to undertake maintenance of that road, a decision that the Supreme Court declined to review.

These various cases provided and defended by the road warrior are reminiscent of another observation of the illustrated poet Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors” in his famed “Mending Wall” poem of 1914.

The illustrious poet, Robert Frost, had his day in the sun, literally and figuratively, when he read some of his work on the steps of the U.S Capitol during the inauguration of John F. Kennedy on Jan. 20, 1961, after the closely contested election of 1960. Unfortunately, the glaring sunshine, on an otherwise chilly day, marred his ability to recite his poetry. But that was a minor indignity compared to what occurred at the same capitol some 60 years later on Jan. 6, 2021, when one of JFK’s successors took the low-road after another close election and inspired an insurrection there.


 Some other notable poems by Robert Frost

  • Birches (1915)
  • Christmas Trees (1916)
  • Fire & Ice (1920)
  • Stopped By Woods On A Snowy Evening (1923)

Marshall H. Tanick is an attorney with the Twin Cities law firm of Meyer Njus Tanick.

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