Court of Appeals 03.23.10

Well overdue for a new post.   The Court helpfully provides an opinion affirming a railroad-crossing closure in the Town of Lorain.  Perhaps to aid in my writing of an update/critique, the opinion is as atrocious as a correctly decided opinion can be.  I can re-write the opinion in 6 sentences:

The Town and Union Pacific agreed to close an at-grade crossing under Minnesota Statutes, 219.074.  Appellants argue that the Town should have vacated the road under Minnesota Statutes, Chapter 164, and awarded them just compensation through that procedure.  We find that 219.074 is the controlling statute in this case.  Appellant’s request for a writ of mandamus directing the Town to use Chapter 164 procedures was properly denied.  Minn. Stat. 219.074 does not contain a cause of action for compensation to nearby landowners.  Affirmed.

Clear, concise, and leads to predictable results in the future.  Instead, the Court decides to frame the writ request as moot, seizing on the appellant’s admission that the crossing was closed and would stay closed.  But this leaves the impression that if only appellants had sued earlier, the outcome might have been different.  That’s simply not the truth.  The Town used the correct procedure.  The outcome is the same no matter when the owners file their challenge.  Instead of simply saying that, and resolving the issue, the Court just invites someone else to try again.

The second half of the analysis is even worse.  Having found that ordering a road-vacation process under Chapter 164 is moot, the Court rubs salt in the wound by finding that the possibility of compensation only springs from – wait for it – the Town holding hearings under Chapter 164.  It’s not a compelling argument, and as noted above, it’s totally unnecessary.  The greater sin, again, is creating the impression that the outcome might have been different if appellants had just sued earlier.  In some cases decided on maddening procedural grounds, that might be true.  In this case, it clearly and unequivocally is not true.  There was absolutely no reason to dodge the merits in this case, but for some reason, the Court chose to do that.

It’s certainly not the case that we’re going to be overcome with a flood of at-grade rail crossing closure cases.  But we all have our part to play in making government more efficient, less expensive, and better for everyone.  Telling litigants, “gee, you should have sued earlier” when the answer is clearly “no, the Town did it right” is the exact opposite of those things, and it does impact operations and budgets at every level of government.

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Court of Appeals 07.07.09

The Court released two unpublished opinions in our area of coverage, an assessment appeal out of Rochester, and a nonconforming use dispute from Oronoco Township.  To read the Oronoco Township opinion is to believe that the justices rolled their eyes at the landowners’ case, and maybe they did.  The problem with this kind of writing is while unpublished opinions aren’t precedent, they are helpful to practitioners tasked with fitting the law to the facts in front of them.  So when the Court gets a matter where the Town and the landowner have already been through three rounds, it’s worth it to give more descriptive detail than “the Overbys constructed a shed.”  A shed?  Are we talking about a “kit from Menard’s” shed or a “truck terminal in your backyard” shed?  It really does make a difference to us in the ability to use the opinion as an anecdote – if there’s some economic substance here (which would be implied by the extended legal battle) then counsel can use this case to persuade owners, applicants, and Board members about the need to read local rules.  People can see their situation in a reasonably presented set of facts and can be swayed from doing dumb things.   If we’re just looking at a ridiculous homeowner who won’t move a tool shed twenty feet (as indicated by the eye-rolling), then nobody identifies.  The opinion as written makes the appellants out to be fools – a few more details would let the rest of us judge for ourselves.

Admittedly, the Rochester case is less likely to be used as an anecdote someday – when it turns out that your city assessment exceeds any benefit by over a million dollars, there’s not much that you’re going to do to save it at that point.  Rochester and MnDOT created a TID district with improvement fees.  A commercial property declined to pay the fee (as was their right), so Rochester assessed (also fully disclosed from the start).  Problem is, Rochester assessed the TID fee ($1.7 million) on the basis of all improvements in the district, which turned into a problem when the trial judge cut out the improvements paid for with Federal dollars.  The remaining “city” project was nowhere close to providing $1.7 million in value increase.  The Court of Appeals affirmed, refusing to extend the MacKubin Street reimbursement doctrine (city can still assess state-aid funded road projects even if reimbursed)  to projects partially or totally funded with Federal money.