MORA, MINN. – Saying their hands are tied by state law, Hillman Township supervisors Tuesday night denied a petition from residents seeking to recover the gravel road leading to their home outside this Kanabec County town.
It was a tense meeting, with terse and sometimes combative exchanges between town board members and residents. One resident, angry at the board, stormed out of the meeting, slamming the door as he left.
Meanwhile, three residents — including the town clerk — called for the resignation of township board Chair Ryan Martens, who faces a felony charge of criminal sexual misconduct. Martens did not resign.
Ultimately, the board voted 2-0, with one abstention, to deny the request for a special meeting in which township residents could vote on resuming maintenance of the northern half of Hornet Street, home of Renee and Andy Crisman.
"I want to help you, I really do," Supervisor Elaine Pierson told the Crismans. "I'm sure you're very nice people. But how do I break the law?"
At that point, resident Al Nohner had heard enough.
"You guys all sleep in the same bed!" he shouted at the board, storming out of the crowded town hall and slamming the door.
In August, the township board declared that the road to the Crisman home had ceased to exist. Records showed that it hadn't been maintained in more than 40 years, the board said, and state law says that ownership of a township road that's not maintained for 40 years reverts to the landowners whose land it crosses.
The Crismans provided county records that they said proved maintenance was done within the 40-year window, but board members rejected them, saying they had spoken with numerous longtime residents and former town officials who couldn't recall any maintenance having been done during that time.
Several years ago, Pierson had told the Crismans that if they repaired the road at their own expense, the town might maintain the street in the future, according to court testimony. The Crismans spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money to rebuild the road and create a turnaround for the school bus. But after a dispute arose with a neighbor over marking the property line, they didn't return to the board seeking a resolution. Instead, they sued the township for maintenance of the road and lost.
Over the summer, the township extended a different gravel road connecting to another part of the Crismans' 120-acre property. Board members say they can access their home on that road, although they would have to build a long driveway across a pasture to reach it.
The Crismans had gathered signatures from 67 of the township's 422 residents in support of their petition. After the meeting, Renee Crisman said the result was not a surprise.
"They're given the opportunity to do the right thing, and I'm disappointed that they haven't done it every time," she said. "Sixty-seven electors said they wanted to have a voice. Not only did they shut us down, they took away [the electors'] voice."
"Why stand behind these legal loopholes?" Andy Crisman said. "Why not find a way to do the right thing?"
Earlier in the meeting, several residents of Hillman and neighboring townships pleaded with the board to find a way to settle the issue.
"We've been residents of Hillman Township almost 50 years," Tom Felger said. "Things have changed since then." When he moved to the township, Felger said, "We were like the Crismans, a young family. The supervisors made us feel welcome."
Felger, a former town supervisor himself, said the job "shouldn't be a position where you're wielding your power. We're called upon to serve all the people."
"I'm not here to take sides," he said. "I'm questioning how we got to this position. It escalated to something it shouldn't have."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402