Shooting Star sits: Austin MN Daily Herald, 10/12/07

By Lee Bonorden

The Shooting Star Recreation Trail is still 10.5 miles in length.

It stretches from the trail head in the city of LeRoy through Lake Louise State Park to Taopi, where it ends.

Prairie Visions faithful hope it’s only temporary and that the biking and hiking trail will be extended first to Adams and then on to Rose Creek and possibly its ultimate goal: across Mower County to the city of Austin.

Patrick W. Flanagan, the attorney retained by Mower County to represent the county in the dispute, believes one of two things could happen soon.

“Either there will be a summary judgment ordered by the court or there will be a trial in court,” Flanagan said. “There is a third issue that remains undecided and that is the actual value of the property.”

First leg of trail done in 1993
The project was the brain-child of Prairie Visions, the joint-ventures organization of volunteers from Rose Creek, Adams, Taopi and LeRoy.

With a $100,000 appropriation from the Minnesota Legislature, the first leg of the trail was completed in 1993.

That was from the northwest city limits of LeRoy through Lake Louise State Park.

Three years ago, the trail extension to Taopi was dedicated with a ribbon-cutting, speeches and other fanfare.

Funding for the Adams extension was obtained, but acquisition of the abandoned railroad right-of-way land for the trail’s path hit a snag in 2005. Seven property owners agreed to sell their land; 14 others refused.

Despite being offered 10 percent more than the market value of the land, they refused to sell their land to the county for the trail.

The opponents took their complaints to Mower County District Court when Mower County sought to acquire the land by eminent domain or quick-take provisions.

In May 2006, a district court judge ruled the quick taking of the land was for a pubic purpose and eminent domain was allowed.

In August 2006, the district court ruling was appealed to the State Court of Appeals.

In July, the appeals court upheld the lower court’s decision.

The case has not since been appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

Flanagan is a former Mower County attorney who resigned the position to re-enter private practice in St. Paul.

Because of his experience with the recreation trail issue while he was Mower County attorney, the county retained his services to represent them before the appeals court and Flanagan successfully won the appeals court’s affirmation of the district court ruling.

The land owners brought action in the form of their appeal in two forms: 1) The district court didn’t have the right to take their property, because the trail is not a public purpose; and 2) Because the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was to take over maintenance of the trail, it (the state agency) could not quick-take land by eminent domain.

The Appeals Court ruled the DNR issue did not apply and agreed with the lower court: the trail was for a public purpose and the county’s use of eminent domain privileges was allowed.

So, Flanagan, like the Prairie Visions faithful in Mower County, waits.

According to the attorney, if there is further action by the landowners it could only be on the DNR’s role.

“Once the property is formally awarded to Mower County, there are no more issues to appeal,” he said.

Thus, he said the only options remaining are a summary judgment to be awarded by the court or a court trial.

The third issue to be resolved is the actual value of the property, according to Flanagan.

While there was a flurry of excitement in August when Mower County published its annual financial report and listed amounts paid to the Taopi-to-Adams trail segment’s landowners, that was more of a formality than anything.

“The county had to include those amounts for the court case to show that it had set aside the money to pay for the land when it acquired it,” Flanagan said. “The checks go to the court and are held by the court in trust until the money can be released.”

Another construction season has been lost for the trail extension project.

However, the money received by the county for the extension to Adams has been encumbered.

Plans for the trail extension are completed in the Mower County highway department engineer’s office.

Austin MN Daily Herald: http://www.austindailyherald.com