City takes chance on eminent domain — St Paul (MN) Pioneer Press, 1/10/05

Tactic used in dispute faces test in U.S. Supreme Court

By Mary Bauer

The Vadnais Heights City Council has entered the murky waters of eminent domain in its ongoing battles with Carolyn Alexander and her son Kenneth Staeheli.

The council voted in December to end its dispute with Alexander over a revoked mobile home permit by acquiring the 5-acre property on County Road F through eminent domain. The action came amid accusations of illegal tree cutting, wetlands tampering and nighttime carousing in the woods.

Vadnais Heights is waiting to proceed until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on a Connecticut case to decide the limits of a tool cities have used to redevelop blighted or nuisance properties. The court won't hear arguments until February.

But the city's direction raises an important issue: Can a government condemn a property because of an individual's behavior?

Mayor Sue Banovetz and city staff members compared the case to one in early 2002 in which the city purchased a house because neighborhood tensions were rising.

A lawyer who specializes in eminent domain, however, said there's a world of difference between buying and forcibly acquiring property.

"If this was a legitimate tool, you'd see an awful lot more condemnation going on at the municipal level," said Dan Biersdorf with Biersdorf and Associates, a Minneapolis law firm that specializes in eminent domain cases. "I don't see their justification for taking property."

Condemnation proceedings, he said, must either serve a public purpose or enforce police powers such as public safety. It appears that neither threshold has been met, he said.

Officials say the city has spent too much time and too many resources trying to get Alexander to remove the mobile home, being used by her 90-year-old mother. The mobile home's permit was revoked in July 2003.

"There's been a lot of foolishness and a lot of time wasted," said City Administrator Gerry Urban.

Alexander's court appearance for allegedly violating the city's mobile home ordinance has been postponed twice because of illness and is rescheduled for Jan. 24. Staeheli's trial on contempt of court charges for allegedly ignoring a ban on tree cutting has also met with delays and is scheduled for Feb. 28.

In December, several of Alexander's neighbors approached the City Council with a fresh batch of complaints, saying Staeheli had girdled trees that are now threatening their town homes. And brush piles have been placed on the property line, creating a fire hazard, they said.

"He just made a big barricade like he was building a stockade," said Roger Larson, who lives on the north side of the property and who said he has had yelling matches with Staeheli. "You wonder what he's capable of doing."

If Alexander's house were unsafe or blighted, the city might have grounds, Biersdorf said. But the threat of fire on vacant property would be unusual grounds for eminent domain acquisition, he said.

Vadnais Heights officials say their largest concern is that disputes among neighbors are spiraling out of control.

Owners of town homes on the ridge above Alexander's property, many of them retirees, told the council Staeheli is engaging in "psychological warfare," running electric cords near one home to power an electric saw in the middle of the night and tripping their security lights at odd hours.

"He's been a real nuisance," said neighbor Patty Warner.

By the time sheriff's department deputies arrive, Staeheli is always gone, they said.

"We're concerned about this escalating" into a physical confrontation, Urban said. "One of the duties of a city is to ensure public safety."

Staeheli denies the accusations. He says town-home owners are harassing him because of improper drainage across his mother's property, an issue raised recently with wetland agencies.

"Every time they hear a twig snap, they're calling the sheriff," he said.

The neighbors, he said, also confuse the lots owned by his mother and father, who are divorced. He is banned from cutting trees on his mother's lot, but not on his father's.

Such problems sound like matters of civil and criminal law to Biersdorf. "I'm sure they're exasperated," he said of city officials caught in the middle, but he's never heard of condemnation being used to settle squabbling among property owners.

As it awaits the U.S. Supreme Court's decision, the city is not actively pursuing condemnation. And officials must weigh the financial impact of acquiring a large lot in the face of a 5 percent increase in property taxes this year, Urban said.

Alexander said invoking eminent domain is overkill, given the improvements she and her son have made to the property, removing trash and diseased trees. She and Staeheli say they're moving as fast as they can without hiring help they can't afford.

"The people over there have more power than I do with the city," she said, nodding toward the town homes. "They treat me like I'm Ma Barker."

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