Washington County has no grounds to establish a road across a private landowner’s property on Big Marine Lake, a district judge has ruled.
Brent Reibel had sued the county to stop its efforts to declare existence of a road that someday could link parkland to the south of his property with a planned county campground to the north. In her order, Judge Elizabeth Martin said there is no evidence that land was used as a road after 1976.
“After 24 years of neglect, what was once a stretch of the road known as Lomond Trail North simply became brush and overgrowth in 2000 when the plaintiffs purchased the property,” Martin wrote. Reibel and his wife, Sandra, own the land “free and clear” of any county and May Township claims, she ordered.
Over the years, the county has been buying private land from “willing sellers” to add to Big Marine Park Reserve southeast of Forest Lake. A portion of the envisioned 1,800-acre park opened in 2008 with a beach, boat launch, picnic areas and trails on the south end of Big Marine Lake.
The disputed land lies to the north of that, on the east side of the lake, where the Reibels bought 17 acres and built a $1 million house that overlooks the lake.
“I’m rejoiced. It makes me feel so great that finally somebody heard my story, and it was the truth,” Reibel said Friday. “This whole thing was about lies. The county was manipulating lies to steal my property.”
Rick Hodsdon, an assistant county attorney who worked on the case, said, “The county’s goal is to be good neighbors with everybody in the park” and added that Martin’s order won’t change long-term park plans.
“I think it’s fair to say we have some clarity from the court on what was a confusing issue,” he said. “If the Reibels stay where they are for a long time, it won’t interfere at all with acquisitions we need from other willing sellers to complete the park.”
Reibel said he’s spent $45,000 in legal fees and tens of thousands of dollars in other costs to protect his land in the years-old dispute. At one point, the county removed a metal gate he had installed where the road was alleged to have existed.
“They have no right to do what they’re doing to people,” said Reibel, who owns a heating and air conditioning business in White Bear Lake. “Willing seller means to them, destroy them and they sell,” he said.
“What Brent is telling you is pretty exact,” said Patrick Kelly, one of his attorneys. “They’re pretty aggressive.”
But Don Theisen, who oversees parks in his role as county public works manager, disputed that. “It’s unfortunate that he feels that way. I obviously don’t agree,” Theisen said. Rather than a road, he said, the county now envisions a bike trail on that land if the Reibels ever sell their property.
Reibel’s other attorney, Chad Lemmons, said the battle is finished unless the county appeals Martin’s order or condemns the Reibels’ property.
Hodsdon said he hasn’t heard of a desire to impose eminent domain on the Reibels and said such a measure is taken only in “extremely rare exceptions” for parkland.
Martin’s order nullifies any further court actions on the matter including a pretrial hearing next Friday.
“This was a well-balanced, thoughtful decision for property owners and the balance of government,” Kelly said of the order.