Judge to rule next month on eminent domain petition: Princeton (MN) Union-Eagle, 7/20/06

By Joel Stottrup

Four attorneys, one judge, a pastor, a deacon, a city administrator, an engineer and about a dozen landowners crowded into courtroom No. 2 at the Mille Lacs County [Minnesota] courthouse last Thursday for a different kind of hearing.

It was about the city of Princeton’s eminent domain petition before Seventh Judicial District Judge James Ruble.

The city wants to extend city sewer and water mains from about Pine Loft Restaurant and Lounge west to beyond First Street.

That requires land easements. Eminent domain allows governmental units to acquire land or easements by force if it meets a public purpose. A panel of three members who are called commissioners deliberate to come up with a price for the land or easements.

But Judge Ruble has to first determine if the city’s reason for the eminent domain fits the public-purpose criteria.

Secondly, the judge has to determine if the city’s reason for wanting immediate possession is justified.

Testimony was taken for nearly three hours in the courtroom Thursday, after which Judge Ruble said he would have a ruling by sometime in August.

The two people testifying were Michael Nielson, one of the city’s consulting engineers, and City Council member Lee Steinbrecher.

The attorneys doing the questioning were Richard Schieffer, for the city; Jim Mogan, representing landowner Jane Odgers; and Joseph S. Mayers, representing New Life Christian Center.

The attorneys for the landowners concentrated on whether the city’s proposed route for the utilities extension is the best, and whether the city followed correct procedures.

Some of the questions centered on whether the proposal was ever brought to the city planning commission.

Engineer Nielson responded that the commission had seen the proposed route when it reviewed the proposal for the 519-unit Heritage Village housing development, even if the commission had not gotten the proposal as part of the eminent domain effort.

Heritage Village, which was proposed on a city-annexed 200-acre piece of land west of First Street, has since been put on hold.

As Nielson was peppered with questions about whether a better route could have been chosen, he maintained that he reviewed several other routes with the city and concluded they were either more costly or less effective.

There are “infinite” possibilities, he said. Someone could actually start at “one end of the world and come up the other side,” and although it would work, it would be too costly, he said.

Nielson ended up on the witness stand for about an hour.

When Steinbrecher was called to testify, attorney Schieffer worked to establish why the city would want to extend utilities right away.

(Steinbrecher has been on the council three and a half years and on the planning commission about six years.)

Schieffer began by asking if the planning commission had ever had discussions about exhibit No. 1 that was up in the courtroom. It was an aerial photo of the area where the utilities extension would go, and also showed the Rivertown Crossing area located between Highway 95 and First Street, and between Highway 169 and Pine Loft Road.

Steinbrecher answered that the commission has frequently discussed that area and has frequently gotten inquiries about it the past six months.

Steinbrecher talked about the city’s comprehensive plan for land use and how so-called “big box” stores such as Wal Mart, Target, Menards and Home Depot and other commercial property could go into Rivertown Crossing. The comprehensive plan actually looks at land use extending as far north as Long Siding, Steinbrecher noted.

Schieffer asked Steinbrecher about the benefit to the city of having “big box” stores. Steinbrecher said they would increase the tax base, create jobs and spur other city growth.

Schieffer asked what the planning commission looks at to attract clients to a development and Steinbrecher answered, “We try to encourage infrastructure.”

The reason is because it takes quite a while to install utilities and “big businesses don’t want to wait three years for us to get our act together,” Steinbrecher answered.

When Schieffer asked if Steinbrecher or anyone at City Hall had recently talked to a potential commercial client, Steinbrecher dropped this bit of information.

He said he and City Administrator Karnowski and others met for most of the day on July 10 with someone representing a “big box” company. The person was looking at an area south of Highway 95 on the west side, Steinbrecher said.

Steinbrecher added that because of the sewer and water lines that were extended into the Rivertown Crossing area, the city has chosen that area for its new package liquor store.

The Union-Eagle asked Steinbrecher later that day if he could say more about the representative he visited with on July 10. Steinbrecher declined comment, other than to say he could have some news in a few days.

Among the people following the testimony in the courtroom was Chuck Pruett, pastor of New Life Christian Center. The city is seeking to run the sewer and water extension across that church property.

Pruett was asked on Friday what he thought of the courtroom proceedings and his thoughts on his church possibly granting an easement.

Larry Doose, a deacon with the church, was also with Pruett in the audience in the courtroom. Doose earlier this year told the City Council how concerned New Life Christian Center was about the potential assessment it would have from city water and sewer mains going past.

A few years ago the church had inquired about getting city sewer and water extended there. But as Nielson testified Thursday, the city was not ready to do that at the time the church underwent a large expansion.

Now the church has up-to date water and septic systems and doesn’t need city sewer and water, Pruett and Doose have told the city.

Pruett said Friday that he is not negative on the idea of the utility extension.

“We just want the right thought processes involved in the extension proposal and want to know whether it has to go through at this time,” he added.

Odgers and Karnowski were asked separately how they think the testimonies went for their sides.

They gave contrasting pictures of the court proceedings.

Karnowski said he didn’t understand why Odgers’ attorney asked if Nielson had shown the proposed utility route to the planning commission right before being given to the council. Seeing the conceptual route as part of the Heritage Village proposal should have been enough, Karnowski said.

Karnowski also said he thought Nielson was well prepared for the questions.

“I think it went well for us,” said Odgers, claiming the testimony brought out “some of the shortcomings of the city.”

An example was not showing the route as a separate proposal to the planning commission before going to the council, she said.

A comment Judge Ruble made shows how seldom eminent domain has been used in this geographic area.

Some of the commissioners once used for the panel to help determine a price for land in eminent domain proceedings are no longer around, Ruble said. Therefore, some new land commissioners for an eminent domain panel will have to be obtained, he explained.

The process calls for three land commissioners and two alternates.

Princeton Union-Eagle: http://www.unioneagle.com