The rural Minnesota family who lost the gravel road to their home will go before their local township board Tuesday night in an attempt to get it back.
In August, Hillman Township supervisors passed a resolution declaring that the north end of Hornet Street no longer exists, leaving Renee and Andy Crisman without legal access to their home outside Mora.
According to the township, the north end of the road where the Crismans live hadn't been maintained in more than 40 years. By state law, the board said, that makes it the private property of neighbors who own the land the road passes through.
The Crismans are hoping to get that decision reversed. But they'll face an antagonistic body in the township board of supervisors, whose chairman has already declared he sees no reason to change the decision.
It's a dispute that has pitted a network of powerful, lifelong residents against newcomers who recently moved to Kanabec County from the Twin Cities. And if anything, it's grown more bitter.
Recently, the U.S. Postal Service stopped delivering mail to the Crisman home. The township board chairman notified the school district that the road was no longer public, offering the district an excuse to end bus service for the Crismans' three daughters, all under the age of 10. So far, the school bus has continued to pick up the girls.
The furor over a quarter-mile stretch of gravel road has grown to a fever pitch that has many area residents shaking their heads in disbelief.
"These closures, and what's been going on with the township, just doesn't make sense to me," said state Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who represents the area in the Legislature. "This really smells to me like it's political."
The Crismans, who moved to Mora in 2017 from the St. Paul suburb of Shoreview, are "just what we like to see in rural Minnesota with young families," Erickson said. "Hillman Township should be delighted.
"I can't figure it out. In this case, I think the township needs to reassess the decisions they have made."
Minds already made up?
That may be unlikely, as two of the three township board members have indicated they have little or no interest in changing their minds.
On Tuesday, the Crismans will present a petition asking the board to call a special election in which voters can decide whether to maintain and plow Hornet Street. Ryan Martens, the board chair, said he sees no reason to revisit the board's decision.
"There's nothing there in my mind that's going to change the 40-year law," he said.
Elaine Pierson, another township supervisor, also sounded as if her mind is made up.
"Right is right. If they can prove something, fine," Pierson said. "But so far they've taken us to court. They had nothing. They were denied on all eight points they brought to the court."
The Crismans sued the township last year, seeking to force it to maintain the road. They lost that case, with the judge ruling that it would require a vote by township residents to resume maintenance.
The Crismans also have offered to gift the township a portion of their own property, including a large turnaround they built for the school bus.
"We're offering anything that will work for them," Renee Crisman said. "We're trying to offer solutions that will work."
Martens claimed that the Crismans had a history of disputes with their neighbors in Shoreview, where they lived before moving to Mora.
But Minnesota court records show that neither Renee nor Andy Crisman had ever been involved in a lawsuit until they sued Hillman Township last year.
Jerry Hawkins, who lived next door to the Crismans in Shoreview, said they were good neighbors.
"They're great people," he said. "Very nice. We had no problems."
Meanwhile, Martens has his own problems. In August, he was charged in Kanabec County District Court with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, a felony with a possible sentence of 15 years in prison. Martens, 38, is accused of having sex with his family's 17-year-old babysitter, a charge he has denied. He said he has no plans to resign from the board.
It started with a survey post
Dan Schmoll, the Crismans' Mora neighbor, said he's as puzzled as anyone by the bitterness. When the Crismans first moved in four years ago, he said, relations were good.
"I'm not mad at them. That couldn't be farther from the truth," Schmoll said. "But I'm not friendly with them. When somebody threatens to sue you, you don't want much to do with them."
The source of the dispute appears to be a post Schmoll put in to mark his property line at the time the Crismans were repairing the road in 2019 at their own expense, hoping it would help persuade the township to continue maintaining the road.
Schmoll installed the post in the road's right of way, and the Crismans asked him to remove it, saying it could obstruct traffic. He refused, and they sent him a cease-and-desist letter.
"A survey is a survey," Schmoll said, noting he used a survey the Crismans commissioned and paid for. Schmoll maintains that the post isn't in the road's right of way.
At that point, relations between the neighbors turned frosty. Both Schmoll and the Crismans raise cattle. When Schmoll heard that the Crismans were going to put in a new wire fence on the property line, he said, he offered to share the fence and the expense, but was refused. The result was two separate cattle fences, about 6 inches apart.
"That double fence is the dumbest thing in the world," Schmoll said.
Problems with a blog
Schmoll, Martens and Pierson also object to a blog that Renee Crisman launched, detailing the family's struggle over the road. They say it offers inaccurate information.
"I'm not going to lower myself to the level of dealing through the internet," Pierson said. "If you have a problem, then come to the meeting and talk to me about it. Our lawyers say that everything we have done has been aboveboard, legal and to the law."
Renee Crisman said the blog has been important in getting her side of the story out, saying that opponents of the road are spreading inaccurate and incomplete information. Schmoll, Pierson and Martens are all lifelong residents of the county, and they have a lot of sway with local residents.
One thing everyone agrees on: They wish this dispute would end.
"It's so stupid the way this has snowballed into a big, dumb thing," Schmoll said. "It's been a waste of time for everybody."
"I know I'm ready for it to be over," said Martens.
Renee Crisman, looking toward the township board meeting, said the family is optimistic, "but we're trying not to get our hopes up."
"My whole thing is, let's be at peace, finally."