ISANTI, MINN. – George Hemen bought his dream truck this year.
An independent hauler for more than 25 years, Hemen retired his old rig — with more than a million miles on it — for a new Freightliner.
He keeps both the old and new trucks on the 6-acre spread where he’s lived for 31 years, along with a few snowmobiles, a Chevy Tahoe that he plans to get running again, 14 chickens and a rooster.
But they might not be there much longer.
A classic battle between town and country is brewing in this growing city of 5,300 people about 35 miles north of Minneapolis, where the population has more than doubled in the past 15 years. In coming months, the city plans to annex about 30 properties in Isanti Township that border the city limits, including Hemen’s.
The City Council voted unanimously last month to proceed with the annexation. But with several legal steps still ahead, final approval could take months.
Isanti officials say the landowners are receiving city benefits, such as police protection and road plowing, but not paying for them. But township residents are furious, saying they want no part of city laws, which would forbid them from keeping livestock or parking vehicles on their land.
“There’s no need to do this,” said Craig Nelson, who has lived on his property for 42 years. “If they raise our taxes, in my mind, that’s taxation without representation. That’s what this country was founded on.”
Hemen said he cherishes the right to do as he pleases on his property. He’s afraid of losing his freedom if his land becomes part of the city.
“Who in their right mind would buy 6 acres when all you can do is look out your window and say you own it?” he said. “Or get a $200 ticket from the city for not mowing your yard?”
In the language of land use, many of the properties to be annexed in Isanti are considered “doughnut holes” — township parcels almost surrounded by city land. Many are near Hwy. 65, a major north-south thoroughfare that has exploded with commercial development in recent years as the city has grown.
“Frankly, many of these properties should have been annexed a long time ago,” said Mayor George Wimmer, who has been a vocal supporter of the move.
“We fully understand that they don’t want to be annexed and they don’t want to pay city taxes. In our view, they are benefiting from city services and they should have to pay for them.
“The issue comes in where they want to be self-sufficient, but they’re on city roads. Part of being self-sufficient is your ability to pay.
“It’s a change, and it’s difficult,” he added. “But it’s for the long-term benefit of the city.”
The borders where city and township meet reflect the two sides of the battle. Bustling new gas stations, grocery stores and fast-food joints line Hwy. 65. But half a mile away are cornfields, dirt roads and large homesteads with horses grazing alongside pole barns.
To be sure, annexations are common in Minnesota — hundreds are completed each year. But they’re often painful, said Craig Johnson, who handles land issues for the League of Minnesota Cities.
“Annexation is always something that makes people nervous,” Johnson said. “Annexation is never uncontroversial.
“We don’t fight with townships much,” he said of his organization. “But on annexation, they feel very differently than we do. We have to fight with our township friends on that.”
In most cases where there’s a dispute, the final decision is made by a state administrative law judge. And assuming a city has followed the proper procedures, Johnson said, it’s tough to fight City Hall.
“If it looks like a city and acts like a city,” he said, “that’s one of the things that says, ‘Maybe this should be in a city.’ ”
In a 21st-century twist, much of the battle in Isanti is being fought on Facebook, where Wimmer is vigorously attacking his critics — and they’re firing right back.
In recent posts on his mayoral page, Wimmer has accused critics of spreading lies and misinformation. After Hemen spoke against annexation at a recent City Council meeting, Wimmer bluntly countered.
“He constantly referenced he wanted to protect his way of life,” Wimmer wrote on Facebook. “That sounds great, but his way of life is subsidized by the Isanti City Taxpayer.”
In another post, Wimmer wrote, “Constant demeaning and insulting comments are not acceptable.”
Local resident Mark Townswick responded by writing, “Let’s cut the fluff, shall we, Mr. Mayor? Let’s get down to it.
“This entire endeavor appears as a simple revenue generation plan. An excuse to collect more taxes from those which do not currently reside within the constrains of the city.”
Township residents say the annexation push is penalizing them for the city’s growth.
“We were in the country,” said Ron Bosch, who has lived on his land for 27 years. “The city grew out to us. I never asked for anyone to come take over my land.”
At the recent City Council meeting where the city voted to proceed with annexation, Hemen cast the issue as preserving “the American dream.”
The township people, he said, “moved here to enjoy a country atmosphere and a way of life including lack of government intervention. This forced annexation attempt is against their belief system and their way of life, every single one of them.”
Wimmer said he’s sympathetic to those feelings.
“I’m a small-town country boy myself. I grew up on a farm,” he said. “So I understand that.”
Still, he’s not giving in.
“I had six older brothers,” Wimmer said. “So I have a thick skin.”