Eminent Domain Gone Inhumane

By Danny Orttell

How would you react if you had just paid off a 15-year mortgage, never missing a payment, on a lake home you had built yourself, yet had no home to go to? The last 6 payments were made after your home was bulldozed.

About a year ago, Danny Orttell, a 25-year resident of Oak Grove was forced by the Anoka County Sheriff to leave his home, business, and livelihood because of a legal process known as Eminent Domain. The objective was to condemn and demolish both his lakeside neighborhood and the neighboring Shoreside Bar & Grill using the “Blight Clause;” in order to build a 54 unit senior high rise there.

Then they took Mr. Orttell’s 7.2 acre tree nursery as an extension of the blighted neighborhood project.

Orttell contends that building the senior complex on his old neighborhood site was never feasible because of its proximity to the lake. The density of the structure requires that it be built 500 or more feet from the shoreline. “I believe the initial site plan was only used to successfully take the West Lake George properties,” Orttell says. The plan was later radically revised placing the structure completely outside the doomed neighborhood site. One top project official even testified during Orttell’s first Eminent Domain appeal hearing that the revised senior complex could be built in its entirety on the 7.2 acre tree nursery parcel, without requiring the use of the original lakeside neighborhood properties whatsoever.

Orttell owned three homes in an old resort community on the west shore of Lake George, on a street he named Paradise Alley. One of these homes had just undergone a $100,000 renovation. He built the other two in 1985 and 1989, both in compliance with existing city building codes.

In January, 2001 Orttell was informed that Oak Grove had retained the services of HKS & Associates to do inspections and appraisals of all the buildings in the Paradise Alley neighborhood. Orttell had no reason to think his homes were substandard. As any property owner would do in order to obtain the best opinion and appraisal of his property, Orttell began the usual cleaning, painting and repairs on his houses and garages. Forcing himself to work in sub-zero temperatures to meet the city’s deadline while battling pneumonia, Orttell suffered a paralyzed vocal chord ending his 20 year professional singing career. As lead singer of the Both Barrels Band, Danny shared the stage with such music greats as Bobby Bare, Mickey Gilley, Carl Perkins, Ricky Nelson, and Merle Haggard to name a few.

As it turned out, all of the houses in the neighborhood were deemed structurally substandard by HKS. Most of the inspections were completed without HKS representatives even entering the properties. One residence was used to meet the occupancy criteria necessary to initiate the project but that same residence was not actually included in the project. Several lots were allegedly deemed occupied that had been vacant for years.

In the spring of 2001 the city of Oak Grove held an Economic Development Authority (EDA) meeting allegedly to discuss the redevelopment of the West Lake George Community. The EDA voted 3-2 to go ahead with the project. The residents of West Lake George were then given just 15 minutes to discuss and argue the taking of their homes before the City Council (same as the EDA) voted 3-2 to pass the motion. The same people that proposed the project also voted on its approval. Is this democratic? Assuming that these “substandard” residents would become unruly after the predetermined motion was passed, Anoka County Sheriff’s deputies were on site to remove them. Residents most affected by the vote were given no advance notification of the meeting or its agenda other than word of mouth.

After the stunned residents were herded out of the city hall, at least two sources are said to have heard council member Ron Sivigny referring to West Lake George residents as “low lifes,” and calling Orttell a “slumlord who had no reason to be angered when he probably built his houses with illegal money anyway.”

In reality, when he built the homes, Orttell was working two full time jobs and built the houses in his spare time. Danny covered most utilities for his tenants including laundry and air conditioning. He’d often find work for his tenants when they had financial problems. Hardly the slumlord depicted by councilman Sivigny. Orttell has a history of donating to both local and overseas charities. As the owner of a tree nursery (half of which was taken by the Eminent Domain project) Orttell often donates trees and shrubs to schools and churches, and others who lack the funding to landscape their properties.“Danny works every day of his life,” his neighbor stated, and anyone who knows him would invariably agree.

Most of the residents who were removed from the project area were renters who received anywhere from $14,000 to $39,000 each to ensure they left quickly and peaceably. Orttell was the last to leave the area and is still fighting related issues today. Two tenants who leased from Orttell owed him in excess of $9,000 in back rent. He had made an agreement with the tenants that he’d wait for rent payment until they received their relocation settlements. Dan Wilson, Oak Grove Relocator, was to notify Orttell before the relocation money was distributed. However, Wilson failed to do so, and as a result, Orttell collected none of the debts owed to him. With the cost of attorneys and appraisers, along with his loss of rental income and nursery sales, Orttell is out well over $150,000 and to this date has yet to receive a single dime of compensation for any of his properties, outbuildings or over $130,00 in nursery stock.

Federal law states the owner of a property taken by Eminent Domain has first rights to salvage and/or purchase any buildings involved and that the buildings should be utilized as long as possible allowing residents to stay until demolition is inevitable. Orttell’s home could easily have been left standing without interfering with the demolition of the older cabins with the failing sewer systems. Oak Grove had even received a fax from the electric company stating that electricity could have remained connected to Orttell’s house and well while the demolition was done on the rest of the neighborhood. To date no construction has begun in the original neighborhood.

On May 7, 2004, while Orttell was still negotiating with Dan Wilson on having access and use of his home and water supply so he could water what remained of his nursery, deputies of the Anoka County Sheriffs department arrived with orders from Oak Grove to forcibly remove him and his family from the property.

Orttell had received several stays of execution which had apparently angered city officials. Although courteous, the deputies had been given orders to arrest anyone who refused to leave or attempted to return to retrieve their belongings.

On Wednesday, May 19, 2004 Orttell was allowed to return to his property with his attorneys, appraisers, and court appointed County Commissioners who would be appraising the properties. The amount of looting that had taken place at the former residential properties shocked Orttell. Oak Grove had not even closed the doors on Danny’s houses, much less secured them as they had done to the others in the neighborhood. Tim Smith, head of Oak Grove Public Works, asked Orttell about a licensed vehicle that was left behind when he was forced off his land.

Although Smith told Danny he had until May 24 to remove the car, the Anoka County Sheriffs department had it towed that same night. Unaware of this, Orttell reported the car stolen on May 22. The Sheriff failed to inform Orttell that they had declared the car to be abandoned and had it towed, costing Orttell over $2000 before he realized it had been impounded and destroyed. Oak Grove’s Administrator, Jan Olson, allegedly was enraged when Tim Smith agreed to sign a statement saying that he had given Danny permission to leave the car there.

Orttell’s personal and household belongings are currently in a storage facility that the city of Oak Grove is obligated to pay for. However, because the payments are frequently left unpaid by the city for months at a time, the storage facility has severely limited Orttell’s access to his property. One of Orttell’s storage garages was robbed of over $6,000 in belongings with no compensation. Add to this the fact that Orttell found his name listed in the Anoka County newspapers for delinquent taxes on the very same property that Oak Grove had taken from him! Apparently, Oak Grove never took the time to change the titles to the properties. According to county records, as of June 1, 2005, the properties remained listed in Orttell’s name.

In light of his legal, physical, and residential ownership struggles of late, Orttell has this to say: “If I can prevent even one family or business from going through what I have endured over the past five years, fighting Eminent Domain abuse will have been worth it.”

Because his houses were in such good condition Orttell contracted a house mover to relocate them. He received permission from the Oak Grove City Planner, Sam Lucas, to move the homes to another location. The demolition contractor also had no objection to the homes being moved as long as it was ok with the city. However, before he had the chance to actually move the houses, he received a visit from Sheriffs deputies again, this time telling him they had orders from the city that he could forget about moving the houses. Orttell contends that city officials, who were angered at his persistence in fighting the public’s purpose in the taking of his land, insisted the houses be destroyed even before they destroyed the cabins that had been polluting the lake for over 20 years.

When pressed for the real reason in pushing this project through, Mayor Oscar Olson allegedly told several sources, “This is a bad neighborhood and Orttell is a bad person.” Orttell’s response to this was “Mayor Olson’s statement is reminiscent of the white man deeming the Native Americans to be savages to justify the atrocities they brought against them.” Mayor Olson even ordered a criminal background search on Orttell hoping to find something to solidify his allegations. The sheriffs department found nothing. “I’ve never claimed to be no angel,” said Orttell, “but I am a taxpaying, registered, voting citizen who intends to keep fighting this injustice to the end.” Danny Orttell filed an appeal to the MN State Supreme Court in June of this year.

For the Sake of Progress
The alleged cover-ups and actions by the city of Oak Grove and Anoka County regarding the West Lake George Project would appear to be more criminal than controversial. They include, but are by no means limited to the following:

  • Over the past twenty years residents have made many complaints about the three cabins on Lake George that were polluting the lake with outdoor toilets at lake level. In an attempt to fix this problem, Jim White, one of the cabins’ residents, asked to hook up to the community sewer system. The city denied his request stating that the system was at full capacity even though permits were being issued for additions and new construction on the lake at that time.

  • In 1996, the Oak Grove City Planner, Sam Lucas, investigated a complaint made regarding an illegal sewer installation. This type of complaint would normally be handled by the City Building Inspector, however, because he was unavailable, Mr. Lucas responded to the complaint. In the presence of three witnesses during inspection of what was clearly an illegal sewer system that would without a doubt leak into the lake, Sam Lucas allegedly stated “just cover it quick”. Neighborhood residents contend that many complaints were ignored until the city could form an Economic Development Authority giving them power to take the whole neighborhood.

  • In late April of 2004, Tenth District Judge John Hoffman ruled in favor of the city of Oak Grove on the Public’s purpose in taking Danny’s properties. At the time, Orttell was suffering from a series of severe migraine headaches and nausea. He was given only a short time to vacate his home. When told of Orttell’s condition, city officials offered him two more days to pack up and leave but only if he waived his right to appeal the court’s decision.

  • When Oak Grove city council member Cindy Norling found out that a large number of potentially toxic transformers and capacitors had been discovered at a building project directly adjoining the West Lake George Project she requested a site investigation. Fellow City Council members, Ron Sivigny and Kristen Anderson, along with Mayor Olson, met her request with strong opposition. For Ms. Norling, this was nothing new for what had become a pattern of opposition and alienation towards her and councilman Gregg Roberts by the Mayor, Sivigny, and Kristen Anderson after they first voiced opposition to the West Lake George Project. The council reluctantly agreed to have the matter investigated by Anoka County Environmental Services. A representative of the agency, Laura Schmidt, was sent out to investigate the allegations. Upon inspection, Ms. Schmidt was said to have picked up a handful of the toxic components that were abundant throughout the site, looked them over quickly, and assumed because they were not rusty they posed no imminent threat. The investigation ended there. Who knows how many of these toxic seeping time bombs lie beneath the surface of this upscale neighborhood, where a number of lakeside houses have already been built? We’re talking toxic transformers and capacitors, found in or near the waters of Lake George. Since these items were dated prior to 1977, they are loaded with PCB’s.

    “Our children swim in this lake. How far will they go for the sake of progress?” stated an angry Lake George resident.

  • Oak Grove Fire Chief, Tony Hennemann disregarded a call about the Shoreside Bar and Grill containing large amounts of asbestos. The building was scheduled for demolition by controlled burn and although they received a report of asbestos by an Oak Grove city council member, the burn took place during 20-30 mph winds resulting in a health hazard to both residents and firefighters. “The demolition was necessary to meet the project deadlines, so apparently that’s why there was no investigation,” an angry neighbor said. It is rumored that several Lake George residents and volunteer firemen are considering filing a lawsuit over this incident.

  • To date, no environmental impact study has ever been done by authorities at any level on the West Lake George Project.

  • Two elderly brothers who are both considered to be mentally challenged were owners of the remaining homes and cabins in the project area. Most of the project area had been owned by their family for over 75 years. According to neighbors, the brothers were coerced and badgered by their own attorney to relinquish their property, leaving all their personal belongings behind. Normally, when handling an Eminent Domain case, attorneys work on a contingency basis, taking a percentage of anything over and beyond what the acquiring authority offers. However, the Nelson brothers’ attorney allegedly took 20% of everything they owned. The entire neighborhood complained to the Anoka County Attorneys office, Adult Protection, and to the State Auditor’s Office. All complaints were ignored.

  • In early December 2004, Orttell was told by his attorneys that they had received information that if Orttell failed to abandon his appeal and settle with the city before January, 2005, when newly elected council members began their terms, the city of Oak Grove would make it even tougher for him to receive fair compensation. However, this was not likely to be the case as the new council members are said to be extremely critical of the city’s previous actions in this matter. On December 7, 2004 Mr. Orttell suffered two grand mal seizures which are thought to have been brought on by electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, and extreme stress over this ongoing ordeal.

    Federal law states that the property owner in an Eminent Domain issue is entitled to a percentage of the escrowed money from the acquiring authorities original offer. The city of Oak Grove and Anoka County, however, still refuse to release any money to Orttell unless either he gives up his legal right to contest their purpose in taking his land and livelihood or he is refused or defeated at the MN State Supreme Court level.

  • “We’ve made numerous complaints to many officials from many agencies. From the local to county, state, and even federal level, all to no avail. But this is a government spending project,” Orttell said, “It appears that the trend is to ignore, pacify, and if necessary, cover up for the sake of completing the project.” In order for Anoka County to release funds to build the 54 unit senior complex, the city of Oak Grove needed to acquire Orttell’s lakeside nursery. The only way to accomplish this was to condemn the adjoining properties using Eminent Domain.

  • Oak Grove residents were told the senior complex was for low to middle income residents. However, they classified only one apartment as subsidized; all others will be rented for $850 to $1300 per month. For most seniors, this would hardly be considered affordable.

  • The blighted property was to be sold to private builders at top dollar to increase the City’s tax base. The laws regarding Eminent Domain state that the acquiring authority should first attempt to negotiate with property owners on a fair price and when possible, involve the owners in the redevelopment. Although Orttell has been involved in home construction and land development for more than thirty years, no such attempt was made. “From the start,” Orttell contends, “I have been treated as if I were a criminal simply because I contested the taking of my home, my business, and my peace of mind. According to the rules of democratic procedure, the animosity, repeated public slander, and outright smear campaign launched against me by Mayor Olson and council member Ron Sivigny constitutes a bias vote, which would nullify the decision to go ahead with this project. The majority of Oak Grove residents were against it and many voters are still angry with Oscar Olson who originally campaigned against Eminent Domain in order to win their votes.”

  • Mr. Orttell did not retain an attorney in this matter until it was absolutely necessary. “From personal past experiences, I view the immoral majority of them as “legal larcenists” who capitalize on ones misfortunes, molesting their hopes and dreams, often extorting a life savings under false pretense,” Orttell contends, “and as attorneys of law, they are virtually immune from prosecution for their crimes.”

  • Eminent Domain litigation, unlike other legal matters, requires more than one attorney. One is required to contest the Public’s purpose in taking the property, another is needed to assure the value of the property involved, and yet another to recover the cost of relocating the homes and businesses involved. During a meeting with his three attorneys and two appraisers, Orttell brought up the probability of a civil suit resulting from the many civil rights violations surrounding the West Lake George Project. One of Orttell’s own attorneys responded, “Danny, you’re a middle-aged, middle class, Caucasian male. You have no civil rights.” “If I could find an attorney who actually believed in civil rights”, Orttell claims, “that would bring the number to four, and then I would probably have to retain a fifth to defend me against the others.”

Danny Orttell: dannyorttell@hotmail.com