For many years the St. Paul Park refinery — currently owned by Andeavor — has been acquiring land for what's known as a buffer zone, much to the concern of some Newport residents.
Andeavor spokeswoman Destin Singleton said it's common practice for refineries to have a buffer zone — a strip of land between the refinery and the rest of the community — to the site for safety, protection and to control access to the grounds. The size of a buffer zone depends on the refinery and on what is up for sale around the business's site.
The refinery has bought homes and small lots adjacent to the site in both Newport and St. Paul Park. The refinery also owns a few parcels totalling about 160 acres on the other side of Highway 61.
Singleton said that since is it a manufacturing site, "at time there are flares ... and emissions potentially." The land, she said, serves as a barrier in the case of any kind of incident at the site.
City Administrator Deb Hill said about 200 acres of land — including over 40 homes — have been bought by the refinery.
The city has expressed concern in the past that when those properties are purchased, they are taken out of the tax base, as well as water and sewer usage.
"Certainly it's a challenge every time we lose a home," Mayor Dan Lund said. "When (we) lose a home and the infrastructure is already there, our costs don't go down."
Earlier this year, the city council voted to rezone land near the refinery. Property from about Second Street to Third Street is zoned mixed-use buffer. The land north of that is residential. The buffer land on the other side of Highway 61 is zoned business park, office or warehouse.
The buffer land rezoning was led by the Planning Commission, Lund said, to better represent what that land now looks like since it is no longer mostly comprised of single-family homes. He said it also appears the refinery is not interested in purchasing homes north of Third Street.
Council member Tracy Rahm, who also lives near refinery land to the east, said at the Nov. 16 city council meeting that he would like to schedule a meeting with the refinery to discuss their intentions.
Lund said the city has set up a tentative meeting with refinery staff after in January. The shifting ownership of the refinery has at times made conversations difficult. Since the turn of the century, the refinery has gone from Ashland to Marathon to Northern Tier to Western Refining, and now to Andeavor, previously known as Tesoro Corp.
Rahm also hopes they would sell some of those parcels to neighboring landowners.
Singleton said that selling those properties has "never been a consideration."
Rahm also mentioned that for decades the land has been used as a haven for teenagers to drink underage and do other illegal activities, something the neighbors know well.
Tami Fuelling, whose home borders the vacant area, said her family almost decided to move out when she realized how the lot was being used.
"(Teenagers) would go back there and end up in the backyard," she said. "We would find drug paraphernalia in the yard."
Fuelling said most of the neighbors could share similar concerns or stories.
Contested buffer land
Part of the refinery's buffer zone has become a bone of contention between the St. Paul Park refinery and one Newport resident.
Brain Domeier, who borders land owned by the refinery on the east side of Highway 61, maintains that over five acres of that land belongs to him via adverse possession.
"I believe I have gained legal rights," he said.
Singleton said the corporation maintains that "this property is the refinery's property."
There are four criteria needed to win adverse possession of partial parcels in Minnesota, Mark Thieroff, Domeier's attorney, said: the land must have been used for 15 years by someone other than the owner, without the owner's permission, the public could openly see it in use, and must have been used exclusively and continuously.
The refinery has tried to enforce its ownership recently by placing a fence between Domeier and the refinery's parcel. Domeier placed a vehicle on the lot line to hinder construction of the fence.
"For safety reasons, we have to control access to the property ... (and) for safety reasons, we don't want people accessing the land without permission," Singleton said.
She said the refinery is evaluating fencing the rest of the 160-acre property east of the highway.
The refinery also filed a restraining order to keep Domeier off the property, that was denied by a judge.
Domeier said some of what is written in those court documents is "blatantly false," and is in the process of filing a court case for adverse possession of the land.
Discussions between St. Paul Park refinery staff and Domeier began as early as late 2016, but began in earnest in April.
Domeier, who used to work for 3M and now owns rental homes in Newport, came close to a settlement with the refinery this summer, but would not sign off on the high price and imposed 30-year covenant that there could not be homes built on any of the land he acquires.
Domeier moved to 10th Street in 1998, where he soon built a home, and a few years later, another. He said he's been using that land since moving in, with activities from cutting and running trails, planting 18 apple trees, cutting and storing firewood, using it as a compost site for his tenants and, most recently, he planted and tended a sprawling garden.
He saw it as a better use for the land than the trespassing by teenagers the community was familiar with.
"This is way, way beyond a garden," Domeier said.
Rahm and Domeier have both noted that the protection of that land fell to neighbors, especially trying to keep people out.
"I know for a fact that ... no one (from the refinery) has ever come there," Rahm said. "They've never done anything. And we've kept all the poachers out and all the trash people out, and everything else that we possibly can, and now they all of a sudden want to come and take ownership of it."
For some neighbors, the squabble has also reawakened questions of environmental effects from the refinery.
The refinery's court filing states: "Keeping the property vacant and undeveloped is essential to achieving the safety and environmental goals underlying the Property's serving as a green buffer zone between the Refinery and the greater surrounding community."
Fuelling is concerned because the refinery hasn't talked to any other neighbors about the issue.
"If it's a hazard 100 feet down the road, why isn't a hazard at my house?" Fuelling said. "If there really is a problem, then we need to know."