With 1,048 lakes, Otter Tail County has more lakes than any other county in the nation. But for now, the public will have to make do with 1,047.
The latest shot in an ongoing battle between a local landowner and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was fired last month, when a stout fence went up on the gravel road leading to the boat launch at Jolly Ann Lake, blocking public access to the 256-acre lake near the town of Ashby.
The fence is the work of Rick Chodek, who claims the public-access road is on his land. And the legal clock has run out on the state’s right to fix the situation, he said.
“They’ve never converted my driveway to a public road,” Chodek said last week. “And there is a state statute that allows me to curtail public use of my private driveway.”
Chodek owns about 40 acres of farmland surrounding a small boat launch and parking lot that’s long been used for public access to the lake. He said there is a lengthy list of errors in the process by which the state created the access area.
It’s a complicated story, he said: “To tell you the whole thing, we’ll probably need a beer and a campfire.”
But the gist of it, according to Chodek, is that the road leading to the boat launch isn’t located where land records say it should be. And by law, he said, the state had 40 years to correct the error.
That deadline expired last year, Chodek said, meaning the state no longer has rights to the public-access road. The DNR disagrees, and last week charged Chodek in Otter Tail County District Court with four misdemeanors for blocking the road.
It’s not the first time Chodek has been at odds with the DNR over the road. Two years ago, he erected a temporary barrier during deer hunting season, posting the road closed. He was charged with a criminal misdemeanor, but a judge threw out the case, ruling that Chodek’s actions weren’t criminal under the law he was charged with breaking.
Since then, the DNR has been working with Chodek to resolve the issue, but it’s given up on those efforts. The agency recently filed a “quiet title” case, asking a judge to decide the property’s fate. Chodek put up the fence shortly after the filing.
Phil Leversedge, deputy director of the DNR’s Division of State Parks and Trails, said Chodek’s actions are out of bounds.
“We believe the state has legal access [to the lake] and that the citizens are being deprived of legal access, but that remains for the court to decide,” he said. “This is a normal land dispute, and it’s best for both parties to make their claim in court and let the judge make the decision.
“So, working with the Otter Tail County attorney’s office and our Division of Enforcement, we are trying to resolve both the current issue of the blocked access and the ongoing issue of the ownership of the access road.”
Chodek said he shut down the road, in part, because he feared he’d be liable if there was an accident on what he views as his land. But there were other factors at work, as well.
Chodek said he’s made several offers to the DNR over the years, proposing to settle the issue by swapping or selling a portion of his land in exchange for a piece of the boat-launch area. But all his offers were rebuffed, he said.
“They ignored the hell out of me,” he said. “The DNR could have had it for free in 2006. They could have bought it from me in 2017. They politely said, ‘Go pound sand’ both times.
“Finally, I said, ‘By golly, I’m gonna take the damn thing away from you.’ ”
Chodek, who can quote obscure land laws going back to Minnesota’s statehood in 1858, said he’s confident he’ll prevail.
“I like my chances,” he said.