Cartways, Townships, and the Meaning of “Meaningful”


Lakeport Township Hall

The word of the day is “cartway”. Not that there is a cartway in this photo taken in the parking lot of the Lakeport Township Hall in Hubbard County. Rather, it’s a term that came up when googling for more information about this particular township.

The term sounds like a quaint throwback to a slower time when there were no such things as medical helicopters for rapid transport, which is what I presume the marking in the Lakeport parking lot is for. Helicopters are not usually practical, though, for people who want to travel to landlocked lake property that they own.

It happens. People sometimes find themselves the owners of property that has no access from a public road.

The owners of landlocked property in Minnesota, whether or not on a lake, can petition their township to create a cartway that passes through adjoining neighboring property to a public road. There are conditions for determining whether a property is eligible to get a cartway, and there are procedures to follow, but if those conditions are met and the procedures are followed, the township is required to establish a cartway.

When established, a cartway becomes a public road of sorts. It’s usually narrower than the width of a standard road — usually 33 feet rather than the standard 66. And although it’s not a private road, it is in most cases constructed and maintained by the petitioner and not by the township.

The affected neighbors are not always delighted to have their property taken for this purpose, even though they are compensated by the petitioner at a cost that is determined by the township. They can make their opinions known at hearings and can suggest alternatives. But if they still object to the resulting decision, there is an appeals process that can bring the issue into Minnesota courts.

It is by reading a few of the court decisions on the web, as well as articles by two attorneys who have been involved in such cartway proceedings, that I’ve learned these bits about Minnesota cartway laws.

Cartway law is a little different in Minnesota than in other places that have such laws. And in recent times it is more prominent in Minnesota than elsewhere. If you google for “cartway”, you’re likely to get more links about Minnesota cartways than anything else. Here are some I found that others might enjoy reading, too.

The Pepin Township case had an unique complication due to the picturesque Mississippi River valley terrain along Lake Pepin. The petitioner wanted access to a 26.6-acre tract of mostly steep land near the river, but especially wanted access to a 5-acre flat portion high on a bluff overlooking the valley. To access this portion, the petitioner requested a cartway through a neighbor’s apple orchard. The orchard owner objected, and the township granted an alternative route that was less disruptive, but which did not provide access to the 5-acre blufftop. The petitioner appealed the decision to the Minnesota courts.

One of the questions was whether that route provided “meaningful” access. The word “meaningful” is present in the cartway statute, but what does meaningful mean?   The Minnesota Supreme Court upheld an appeals court decision that in this case, “meaningful” meant access to the blufftop.

It also overruled another part of the same appeals court decision – a part that required the township to grant the cartway through the orchard. It pointed out that establishing a cartway route was a legislative action, and as such was an issue on which the courts need to defer to the township. The courts could not substitute their judgment for the township’s as to the route.

That Supreme Court decision was handed down in 2010. I don’t happen to know whether a cartway was subsequently built. The attorney who represented the orchard owner and who was the author of the Court to Township article concluded by pointing out: “[W]hile Minnesota cartway law does provide a way for a landlocked property owner to secure access to a public road, that access comes at a price.” The orchard route was probably going to cost more than the usual amount of compensation.

The second item in the above reading list, the article by attorney Tim A Strom, provides advice to townships (and indirectly, to cartway petitioners) on this matter of access coming at a price.

Strom advises that township boards make sure, very early in the process, that petitioners know what they are getting into. This can be done by holding a preliminary meeting with the petitioner, making sure that any other interested persons know about it, too. This meeting is an informal affair in which discussions can flow more easily than at the formal hearing which is yet to come. The immediate purpose is to get an idea of the scope of the project so the township can determine the amount of a security deposit that the petitioner will be required to pay before the process gets started. (The cartway statute allows a township to require a deposit.)  The total deposit can be broken down into several categories, such as damages to the neighbor’s property, the time spent by township officers, and township attorney fees. The process of gathering this information and determining the amount of a security deposit can drive home the fact that getting a cartway is not a trivial matter. As Strom puts it:

This, in turn, can have the salutary effect of making the petitioner more amenable to try again to work out a private easement agreement if relations with the neighbors have not entirely broken down. The neighbors may now have more reason to agree to a private easement because they may realize that it’s likely that a cartway will be established if they do not “cut a deal” with the petitioner.

Strom’s article has a lot of practical advice like that. I found it all enjoyable to read. But it also got me to thinking that the state township associations ought to print up T-shirts with the message, “Have you hugged your township trustee today?” Cartway petitions can put the township officers in a difficult position, because in many cases, establishing a cartway is mandatory. They can’t duck the issue, but it’s unlikely that they can please everyone. And when it’s all over they will still need to live together in the same small township with all the affected landowners.

But township officers are in a good position to handle these issues. They have local knowledge about the people, the properties, and and other issues such as the environmental sensitivity of potentially affected areas. They are in a good position to evaluate alternatives.

Local knowledge might even include a sense of whether husbands and wives are getting along with each other. On page 30 there is the following paragraph. (This also gives the flavor of Strom’s advice throughout. He is pretty good at translating legal talk into Minnesotan.)

The statute says, literally, that each owner and occupant of each tract is to receive this notification. That has to be considered carefully. The haphazard way the statute uses the terms “owner,” “occupant,” and “owner and occupant” is discussed on pages 10-11. If you have an affected tract of land on which a family lives, and there are 15 people in the family, most of them minors, do you really have to notify each and every one? Probably not, but the statute is unclear about this. Presumably, every adult who may have any type of ownership or leasehold interest in the land should receive a notice. Presumably, a notice given to one adult in the family should serve to be notice to all adults in the family, but I’d be careful about that presumption if I knew that, for example, a husband and wife were “on the outs,” and had reason to suspect that one might not tell the other about the notice. As with any notice, more notice is better than less notice.

I’ve sometimes remarked, after reading about controversies, that township government isn’t always like a Norman Rockwell painting. But Strom’s observations in a footnote on page 25 show how it can be. On this page, he advises that, although the township board sets the amount, there is nothing to stop a township board from acting as a negotiator in determining a reasonable price for the taking of property, and that it can be done at the same hearing where both parties are in the room, where both might feel pressure to appear the reasonable party:

A gambit I’ve seen work went essentially like this:  Supervisor: I don’t think I have many more questions about this. Jerry [petitioner], you’re saying that $1,000 would be fair. Jim [affected owner], you’re saying that $3,000 would be fair. I can’t say what we as a board would decide, but let’s assume for the sake of argument we decided that the fair amount is in the middle, $2,000. Jerry, could you live with that—not that you’d be real happy about it, but could you live with it? Jim, how about you—not that you’d be overjoyed, but do you think that would be fair, all in all?

And there is more along these lines. If you have read this far, maybe you’d enjoy reading Strom’s article for yourself.

Paul Bunyan Trail crossing in Laporte

The Lakeport Township Hall is located just outside of LaPorte, whose business district can be seen here, on the other side of the Paul Bunyan trail crossing.

By the way, I’d ordinarily have left the Lake Pepin case discussed above to a time after I had ridden to the township and taken photos of its town hall. However, Lake Pepin township doesn’t have a town hall. That’s unfortunate, because I’m looking forward to riding in that part of Minnesota. But some Michigan militia people from the Black Hawk war ended up in that general area, so there will be plenty of reason to go there, township halls or not.

Lakeport was the 4th township hall for the day and 9th for the year.

Lakeport Township Hall

[Edit: map updated, 25 November 2015]

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