Judge backs city in Forest Lake dispute

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 30, 2013 - 4:37 PM

State law allows the funding arrangement for a new City Hall and retail space, he wrote. Opponents wanted a public vote.

A Washington County district judge has rejected a legal challenge to how the city of Forest Lake plans to fund a new City Hall and public safety complex on the city’s south side.

The Lakes Area Business Association along with residents Cameron Piper, Cassandra Piper and William Anderson had sued the city and the Forest Lake Economic Development Authority (EDA) on the grounds that the funding arrangement required a public vote of approval.

“It appears to this court that the legislature has allowed elected public officials to make their best judgments to do the work of the public and not be second guessed along the way,” Judge John C. Hoffman wrote in his March 21 order, which granted summary judgment to the city and the EDA.

Hoffman said that state laws “allow municipalities and their elected officials to have the most flexibility in making government and political decisions as executive branch officials.”

In November, the city and the EDA struck an agreement with the owner of Northland Mall, a mostly vacant strip mall west of Hwy. 61 and south of downtown, to buy the property and raze the building to make room for a new city complex. The City Council voted Dec. 17 to approve the $21 million project, which calls for new city government offices and 22,500 square feet of commercial and retail space.

The Pipers and the business association alleged the city falsely claimed the Northland Mall site was blighted to avoid a public vote.

The suit said that the city was engaging in “capital improvement,” not economic development, and issuing bonds for that purpose required an election.

In response, the city and EDA argued that the law permitted such an action without a referendum and noted that several cities, including Roseville and Cottage Grove, had built public buildings with the same approach.

Hoffman wrote that he fully expected the plaintiffs to appeal his decision.

“Basically, the defendants have prevailed on the merits involving a purely legal issue which is now ripe for appellate review,” his order said.

The Pipers and others opposing the city’s action gathered 1,000 signatures in December on a petition calling for a referendum.

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