A long-running battle over public access to an Otter Tail County lake has heated up, with a landowner facing 12 new misdemeanor charges for blocking a road to Jolly Ann Lake near Ashby, Minn.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recently took down a fence that the landowner, Rick Chodek, erected on a gravel road offering the only public access to the lake.
In a court filing Friday, the state charged Chodek with 12 misdemeanors. One was for interfering with a public highway; the others were harassment charges for blocking anglers from using the lake. All the charges carry a maximum penalty of up to 90 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Chodek already faces two additional misdemeanor charges filed earlier.
In its criminal complaint, the state said Chodek blocked “numerous” citizens from fishing Jolly Ann, including several who had fished there for 50 years or more and even some anglers who live on the lake but use the public access to launch their boats.
Chodek owns about 40 acres of farmland surrounding a small boat launch and parking lot that’s long been used as the only public access to Jolly Ann. He claims the gravel road leading to the boat launch is on his land, and that land records marking the roadway don’t match the road’s physical location.
An Otter Tail County District Court judge had ordered Chodek to take down the fence by May 31. But as he was coming out of a court hearing on the case May 29, Chodek said, he got a call from a DNR conservation officer informing him that the fence had already been taken down. He later went to see for himself.
“They took the boards down; they brought a backhoe and pulled up the fence posts,” he said.
A DNR spokesman Monday confirmed that the agency had removed the fence.
“Lake residents and others have been using it to access the lake since that time,” DNR spokesman Joe Albert said. “In the days since the gate was removed, there haven’t been any issues with the access to which conservation officers have responded.”
Last week, Chodek responded with a memo to DNR officials saying he plans to charge the state a toll for every day the road remains open.
A self-taught legal advocate, Chodek said he has spent years studying the intricacies of land law in public law libraries in the state. He said he’s confident he’ll prevail, based on what he called a chain of legal errors in the creation of the public access area on Jolly Ann.
“You read [the law], you interpret it, you tuck that under your bonnet and you go to battle,” he said.
A hearing on the case is scheduled for Thursday in the county district court.