A simmering dispute over land along Big Marine Lake has escalated into a confrontation between Washington County and landowner Brent Reibel over a red metal gate.
The $1 million house Reibel owns with his wife, Sandra, sits on their 17 acres between an established county park to the south and, to the north, land the county envisions as someday becoming a public campground. In a clash of private property rights vs. public purpose, the Reibels and the county have disagreed for years over whether a road known as Lomond Trail North exists and how it should be used.
"The escalation is unfortunate and that's why we're here," Judge Elizabeth Martin told attorneys for both sides in a recent court hearing to determine whether the gate should stay in place. The county had removed it earlier in July, saying it illegally blocked a public road. Reibel reported it stolen and blocked the entrance with his motor home until the gate was returned. The county then wanted Reibel to leave the gate open, or remove it.
"Ain't gonna happen," Reibel vowed before the hearing.
"We simply want to retain the right of the traveling public to use the roadway," Assistant County Attorney Richard Hodsdon told the judge, who decided that until she ruled on the matter the gate could remain closed but unlocked.
Chad Lemmons, Reibel's attorney, said no roadway existed before the family built a "boat driveway" there in 2001.
On a recent pleasant July afternoon, Reibel stood at his gate, explaining his belief that no matter what he does, Washington County will find another way to come after him.
"They're just trying to intimidate me," he said. "I don't know where it's going to end."
The alleged road -- its historical existence remains very much in legal dispute -- runs at a right angle to 177th Street, a gravel road that leads to a boat landing and improvised swimming beach just a few hundred yards from the Reibels' house.
Reibel said he's never seen anyone use the easement, which crosses a grassy expanse and ends at a swamp of cattails on the south side of his property. He said the county declared that a road existed only after he cleared thick trees to make a path to the edge of Big Marine Lake.
"It's a road to my boat. That's what it is. I put it in," said Reibel, who owns a heating and air conditioning business in White Bear Lake.
Hodsdon, on behalf of the county, said Lomond Trail North has existed since 1945. The county acquired the easement from May Township in recent years, he said. That was about the time the Reibels finished building their house.
"Basically, we are becoming neighbors to the Reibels in the future," he told Martin in the courtroom. "Certainly we understand he has been resistant to this park as it applies to him."
Reibel, in an interview at his house, denied that. "I'm not against parks," he said. "I'm against how they're trying to get it."
Washington County has a long-term plan to acquire land from "willing sellers" to complete a park covering 1,800 acres. The county opened the first phase of what's known as Big Marine Park Reserve, with a swimming beach and trails, in 2008.
"He built that house knowing it was in the park boundary," said Don Theisen, who manages the county's public works department that includes the parks division. "We appreciate and respect that at the moment Mr. Reibel is not a willing seller."
Reibel said he built the 7,000-square-foot house -- after securing a building permit -- in defiance after the county drove his father to an early death in the 1980s over a land dispute north of his house.
"I didn't need a house like this," Reibel said last week. "I just did it out of spite."
Lemmons told the judge in the recent hearing that if a road ever existed, it was never maintained and should be considered abandoned. "This is private property," he said. "They're attempting to obtain an easement without paying the Reibels for the damages."
Theisen said that even if the county wins its case for a road, it could be years before it's used. The Reibels forced the issue by suing Washington County, he said.
"Let's get this clarified once and for all and move on," Theisen said.
Attorneys for both sides presented Martin with several maps to study as she ponders the fate of a closed gate.
"What I want to do, Mr. Reibel and county guys, is do whatever we have to do to avoid dust-ups," she said from the bench. "We don't want any dust-ups."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037, Twitter: @stribgiles
You can find the park's master plan, trail maps, directions and other information at www.startribune.com/a1577