Lake City, Minn. – Joe Slater’s property on Lake Pepin, about 5 miles south of this riverfront town, is the picture of a secluded country retreat.
After traveling several miles of gravel roads, winding through cornfields where deer and wild turkey roam, you’ll end on a wooded blufftop where, on a clear day, you can see 15 miles down the mighty Mississippi.
Slater bought two farms here — about 360 acres in all — nearly 20 years ago and created two subdivisions with 16 homesites of about 3 to 8 acres each. They’re served by an extensive network of gravel roads that need to be plowed in the winter and graded in the summer.
Until now, Slater has been taking care of the roadwork, doing some himself and hiring out the rest. He figures he’s spent at least $100,000 on road maintenance during the time he’s owned the properties, and the price has doubled in recent years.
Now, believing it to be only fair for Wabasha County to take over the job, he’s suing the county in District Court, asking for an order requiring it “to immediately assume maintenance of the roads” in one of his subdivisions.
“To me, it seems very simple and clear-cut,” Slater said last week, arguing that the roads in his Pepin Bluff Preserve 2 subdivision should be maintained by the public.
Slater said in a court document that when he got approval for the subdivision, the county required him to “donate and dedicate to the public for public use forever” all of its roads and cul-de-sacs.
He also said the county directed the construction of the roads, required its highway engineer to review plans, inspected the roads and approved them when they were finished.
“The county made it clear they wanted public roads,” Slater said.
He said he didn’t demand the county maintain the roads from the beginning because the cost to do so was relatively modest at first, and he didn’t want to fight over it.
But now, he said, “I can’t afford to pay this anymore.”
Karrie Kelly, the county attorney, and Don Springer, chairman of the County Board of Commissioners, both declined to comment on the issue.
But in an e-mail sent to Slater earlier this year, Kelly laid out the county’s position.
“The fact that the County approved the subdivision and construction does not obligate the County to plow and maintain the roads,” she wrote, adding that the county neither “constructed” nor “established” the roads.
Disputes over rural road maintenance are common, said Steve Fenske, a staff attorney for the Minnesota Association of Townships.
“Those subdivision roads are like a public easement that people need to get in and out of their property, but nobody has agreed to take care of them,” he said. “It’s kind of like a private road. If they want to have a road that’s kept up, they need to take care of it.”
“We commonly see when folks don’t want to pay for their road, they come to local government,” he added. “In some respects, that’s understandable. Everybody would like someone to take care of that for them.”
Slater said he’s been a good citizen. At the time he created his subdivisions, Wabasha County had no zoning laws. He could have put in 100 homesites, he said, but respected the county’s desire to preserve farmland.
Residents of his subdivision side with Slater.
“Why aren’t these roads public?” said Dave Close, who’s lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. “They [the county] put street signs out here. Would you put a street sign on private property?”