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Grey Cloud Island to appeal land annexation

Grey Cloud Island Township's legal battle to keep 300 acres of land from being annexed by St. Paul Park isn't over yet.

The town lost its case against the annexation about one year ago, and lost an appeal in Washington County District Court in July.

Last month, two of the three Town Board members said they were against further appeals, but on Monday, Sept. 11, Board Member Dick Adams switched his vote from "no" to "yes," meaning the township will take its case to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Town Board members talked with St. Paul Park officials about reaching a compromise solution, something they say they wouldn't be happening without pending litigation.

Dave Magnuson, township attorney, advised the board in August that only 10 percent of appeals taken to the state appellate court are overturned, and even if the appeal were upheld, it would be sent back to lower courts.

He said it would be difficult to succeed because two "very qualified" judges, in detailed decisions, did not make mistakes.

Township officials have been working to keep 600 acres of land, owned by Gordon Nesvig, in the township for seven years. During that time, numerous court hearings and appeals resulted in annexation of half the land east of County Road 75 (an extension of Third Street in St. Paul Park) into St. Paul Park.

Developer D.R. Horton plans 1,900 units of residential housing and some commercial development on the 600 acres. City officials have approved a plan to bring sewer and water to the property down Third Street from Broadway Avenue.

The current disputed annexation concerns 300 acres, with 106 developable, west of County Road 75 in the Critical River Corridor, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources designation.

The township maintains the land cannot be developed because DNR regulations specify the land should remain rural open space.

However, annexation testimony shows that the land is far from pristine with an abandoned manure pit, and many invasive plant and tree species that need to be removed.

Horton officials have agreed to remove the invasive plants, deal with the manure pit and build public-access walking trails.

Board Member Tom Bell, voting against an appeal, said Minnesota Council for Environmental Advocacy officials told him an appeal is not likely to succeed.

Board Member Paul Schoenecker, who persuaded the other two board members in August to delay a vote on an appeal, said he met with St. Paul Park City Council members Steve Hunstad and Sandi Dingle to see if a deal could be brokered for 18 homes in the township, located in a residential area within a pocket of land that extends into the city.

The homes were included in the annexation by the Administrative Law Judge George Beck, so an island of township land would not be created.

Authored by Adams, the plan asks that those residents not have to pay assessments for street and utilities improvements and that half of the taxes for the homes be given to the township for six years.

"The talk went better than I assumed," Schoenecker said. "I had assumed the city council was not sympathetic."

If the township did not appeal, there would be no chance for the proposal to be considered, but if an appeal were launched, Schoenecker said.

Adams said he was persuaded, on the basis of Schoenecker's meeting, that getting agreement on the proposal was possible.

"I listened in good faith," said St. Paul Park Council Member Sandi Dingle, when contacted.

"Now that they've appealed, it's back to the attorneys," she said. "Unfortunately, they brought it to us at the eleventh hour. Some things we could probably talk about. Others would not be good for the people of St. Paul Park."

Even with the odds against them, 14 township residents who attended last week's meeting were in no mood to quit the fight.

Residents Sharon O'Boyle and John Waldo presented the town board with a petition they said was signed by 50 township residents favoring an appeal.

O'Boyle, who lives across the road from the land that's already been annexed, said the three-judge appellate court outside Washington County might come to a different conclusion than the other two judges.

"There are a lot of people who fight when they don't know what the result will be," she said. "I urge everybody to keep on fighting."

"It's a developer scam," Waldo said. "I want you to tell them in St. Paul Park that you don't want homes annexed."

Bell said he was in a "difficult position" and wanted to respond to township residents but feels the township would lose an appeal.

"Townships haven't come out well in annexations," he said.

Township Clerk Rich Mullen said the township has spent $165,000 to fight annexations.

Adams said it would cost $10,000 for an appellate court appeal.

Township Treasurer Scott Leick said he doesn't want to spend the money when there's very little hope of winning, but O'Boyle disagreed.

"If we spent $168,000, why quibble over $10,000?" O'Boyle said.

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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