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Township offers alternative to family over gravel road dispute

1December 2021

The board of Hillman Township says it’s willing to resolve a long-running dispute over a gravel road outside Mora, Minn., offering to build a driveway at no cost to the family whose road the township claims no longer exists.

On Wednesday, the board’s attorney said he’s been authorized to negotiate a settlement with Renee and Andy Crisman in the fight that’s pitted the Crismans against the board, as well as against neighbors who own the land the road to the Crisman home runs through.

But if a settlement can’t be reached by Jan. 7, attorney Robert Alsop warned, the township will appeal a recent court decision ordering it to maintain the entire road all the way to the Crisman home.

The Crismans don’t appear to be in a settling mood. In a statement, the family called the township’s offer a “take it or leave it” ultimatum and said the township “cannot seem to accept the fact that the judge ruled against it.”

“The township has a choice,” the Crismans said. “It is choosing to fight its own residents, rather than acquiesce to the Kanabec County District Court.”

The dispute is over Hornet Street, a half-mile road leading to the Crisman home in rural Kanabec County, about 85 miles north of the Twin Cities. In 2017, the Crismans moved into a long-vacant property at the end of Hornet Street. For years, the township had maintained and plowed only the first quarter-mile of road, ignoring the final stretch to the Crisman home. The Crismans’ real estate agent knew the history of nonmaintenance, the board said.

When the Crismans asked the township that same year to take care of the road all the way to their home, township voters turned them down. After the Crismans spent more than $20,000 of their own money to repair the road, a dispute developed over the right of way with their neighbor, Danny Schmoll, and the Crismans sued the township to force it to maintain the road.

The township later proclaimed that the last quarter-mile of Hornet Street no longer existed legally as a township road and had reverted to the ownership of Schmoll and his mother.

For the last two years, the battle has been waged in courtrooms and in heated township meetings. At first, Kanabec County District Judge Stoney Hiljus ruled against the Crismans. Then, last month, he issued a new ruling in their favor, saying state law doesn’t allow the township to maintain only part of the road.

It’s that decision that has the township board concerned.

“[T]he district court decision has significant and widespread adverse implications both locally and statewide,” the township board said in a statement. “The district court decision in this case completely undermines the purpose of the statute and the legislative intent for electors to determine road maintenance decisions after years of no maintenance of all or part of a road by the township.”

If the township is forced to maintain Hornet Street, the board said, it could cost $100,000 to rebuild the road to township standards, as well as forcing the township to spend money on other long-neglected roads.

The Crismans called that cost estimate “ridiculous” and “absurd,” saying the last stretch of road to their home is the same width and in the same condition as the first half, which the township regularly maintains.

“We have a road — an over 100-year-old road,” Renee Crisman said. “Let’s use that one.”

Last summer, the township extended a road that connects to a different part of the Crismans’ property and said the Crismans could build a driveway to it at their own expense, thus gaining access to their home.

Now the township said it has offered to pay for the driveway — which would be 600 to 800 feet long — as an alternative to “a lengthy and costly appeal.”

“The gist of the offer is that the Crismans will be provided access to their property from an adjacent plat (at no cost to them) and the township doesn’t have to reconstruct a road at an extensive cost to its residents,” Alsop said. The Crismans have rejected that offer, according to the board statement.

The couple, who raise grass-fed cattle, said the driveway would take away from their pasture land.

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