ONAMIA, MINN. – The makeshift road along Mazomanie Point feels more like a cowpath than the entrance to an exclusive Lake Mille Lacs enclave.
Muddy, rutted and rock-strewn, it winds along the peninsula's shore, with Cove Bay on one side and a swamp on the other, twisting and turning with barely room in places for a single vehicle to squeeze between the trees.
It hardly seems like something that could inspire a bitter, decadeslong feud among neighbors, one that involves sabotage, sheriff's deputies and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Yet this little track through the woods has done just that, sparking a heated and passionate dispute on an issue that infuriates many Minnesotans: eminent domain, or the taking of private property by the government.
Dwaine and Kathy Ratfield, who have lived on the point since 1973, believe they've been victimized through the unjust taking of a piece of their 8-acre property by South Harbor Township, where the point lies.
After the township used its power of eminent domain to declare a 33-foot-wide right of way through their land in 2006, a Mille Lacs County district judge awarded them and several other homeowners more than $225,000 in compensation. More than a decade later, however, they're still fighting to get the money, even though a designated cartway has yet to be built.
Twice the Ratfields filed lawsuits challenging the eminent domain action, carrying both cases to the state Court of Appeals and one to the state Supreme Court. And twice, they lost. But they're not ready to give up.
"Even one violation of eminent domain should not be tolerated in Minnesota," Kathy Ratfield said.
David Meyers, the attorney for South Harbor Township, said the town supervisors are tired of fighting with the Ratfields, a battle that began nearly four decades ago.
"It's done nothing but cause misery for the town board," Meyers said. "The town clerk resigned over this — he couldn't take it anymore. They're getting the crap beat out of them by the Ratfields."
At the heart of the issue is the conversion of the makeshift roadway into a more permanent cartway, a special category of road sometimes found in Minnesota's lake country.
State law provides that when a property larger than 5 acres can be reached only by water, the local government must, if requested, declare a 33-foot-wide cartway across whatever private properties are required to connect the waterlocked land to a public road.
What got it started
The dispute at Mazomanie Point dates to the early 1980s, when brothers Robert and Stephen Zuckerman bought a large property at the end of the point reachable only by water. The Zuckermans proposed subdividing their land for about a dozen homesites. To reach the proposed development, they needed to run a cartway across 20 other properties — including the Ratfields'.
The Zuckermans eventually dropped the plan after the Ratfields and others objected. But minor zoning skirmishes continued to break out in the years that followed.
Tensions grew especially heated in 2003, when the Zuckermans again asked the township for a cartway, this time for what they said would be a family home.
The township approved, and a cartway was declared by eminent domain and recorded on land titles in 2006. But the dispute among neighbors continued, with the two sides battling over how much the Zuckermans should pay the landowners who lost property. In 2008, a judge settled the matter, setting the total amount at $225,000.
Complicating matters was that as the litigation dragged on, the Zuckermans were able to negotiate easements from many of their neighbors granting them permission to cross their properties, thus making construction of a cartway unnecessary. The Zuckermans have argued that that relieves them of the obligation to pay for the right of way taken through eminent domain.
The Court of Appeals disagreed, however, and said in a September 2017 ruling that the township has a duty to make sure the Ratfields and other landowners are paid for the taking of their property, as provided for in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"It is incumbent on the township to take appropriate action to either collect or secure just compensation for the cartway damages ... or to vacate the township's recorded cartway order," the appeals court wrote.
Yet since the court threw out the Ratfields' appeal because they missed a filing deadline, its scolding of the township didn't have the force of law. The Ratfields say that they and the other landowners are still owed the $225,000; the township disputes that. Meanwhile, the cartway is still on the books and noted in property records, even though it may never be built.
While South Harbor Township collected more than $29,000 from the Zuckermans for legal costs and other fees associated with the issue, it has never asked the Zuckermans to pay the $225,000 to the Ratfields and other property owners.
In fact, one resident said he was recently told by county court officials that the money would never be paid unless property owners filed a new lawsuit. Dwaine Ratfield, a retired airline pilot, said he finds the township's stance particularly galling, since the Zuckermans hired Loren Lueck, the township board chairman, as the contractor to build a house and garage on their property, raising conflict of interest concerns.
"When you fly, you live by a set of rules," Ratfield said. "Then you get to Mille Lacs County, and there are no rules."
Lueck said last week that the town attorney has instructed him not to discuss the case.
"I'm just one person on a measly town board," said Lueck, who sounded weary of the whole ordeal. "And if they want the job, any of them people could be on the town board."
Going the distance
Hard feelings on the issue have carried beyond the courtroom.
Robert Zuckerman, a retired physical therapist who lives in New York, said telephone lines to his Mille Lacs property were cut twice and a trench was dug across the entrance.
On one occasion, a contractor working on the Zuckerman place, fearing a confrontation with Dwaine Ratfield, brought a sheriff's deputy with him for protection as Ratfield threatened to charge him with trespass.
Robert Zuckerman said it's been painful to be fighting with neighbors in a place where he hoped to retire peacefully.
"This entanglement became a very personal situation," he said. "It's a beautiful piece of property; we didn't have much choice but to fight it. We were always on the defensive."
Looking back, Stephen Zuckerman, a retired Minneapolis doctor, said he and his brother had no choice but to seek a cartway.
"Our whole purpose was to make our land usable as a landowner," he said. The feud, he insists, "didn't start out as any sort of lawsuit about taking property. It started out as the Ratfields not wanting us to live on the peninsula. All of this is about harassment, nothing else.
"We keep on thinking, 'We're the only Jews for however many miles around?' "
Religion had nothing to do with it, Kathy Ratfield argues.
"He's played that card for years," she said, adding that the Ratfields' concerns were always about future development. "People out here don't even know that he was Jewish. If you had that property and you were intending to build a little cabin on it, nobody would have had a problem with it. He had a bigger plan, and he still has a bigger plan."
So the Ratfields keep fighting, hoping to either get their money or get the right of way removed from their property's title.
During the recent legislative session, they delivered a thick packet of documents to every one of the state's 201 lawmakers, hoping, without much luck, to spark interest in their case.
"It's important for people in Minnesota to have their rights protected, and that only happens if someone is willing to go the distance," Kathy Ratfield said. "And we have gone the distance."