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MORA, Minn. - The two dozen citizens who packed the Hillman Township town hall Tuesday night spent more time outside than in.

The town board cleared the hall as it went into executive session to confer with its lawyer on the latest twist in a heated dispute over a gravel road that no longer exists, according to the township.

For more than 45 minutes, the crowd milled around outside in the chilly November air. When they were allowed back inside, the board said it would have no comment and was still considering its legal options after a recent judge's ruling that called the board's actions "unreasonable and absurd."

Supporters of Renee and Andy Crisman, who lost the road to their home, were frustrated by the board's decision to keep the dispute going.

"It wasn't designed to be this way," said David VanBurkleo, a family friend.

Meanwhile, Dan Schmoll, a neighbor of the Crismans who has been at odds with them over the road, said he's been unfairly criticized for his role in the dispute.

"I'm the injured party here, and I'm tired of it," he said. Schmoll praised the board during its open session, telling members that they had treated the Crismans "above and beyond your call of duty."

Earlier this year, the town board declared that the road to the Crisman home no longer exists. The Crismans live at the end of Hornet Street, a half-mile gravel road off Kanabec County Road 3 north of Knife Lake.

Renee and Andy Crisman with their daughters in August. The Crismans live at the end of Hornet Street, a half-mile gravel road off Kanabec County Road 3 north of Knife Lake.
Renee and Andy Crisman with their daughters in August. The Crismans live at the end of Hornet Street, a half-mile gravel road off Kanabec County Road 3 north of Knife Lake.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune file

Their property had been unoccupied before they moved there in 2017, and the town had been maintaining and plowing only the first quarter-mile of the road. When the Crismans asked the town to maintain the road all the way to their place, residents voted against it.

Later, the town board said the portion of the road leading to the Crisman home hadn't been maintained in more than 40 years. Under state law, a road not maintained for 40 years reverts back to the landowner — in this case, to Dan Schmoll and his mother, Tedi, who own the adjoining properties that the road passes through.

The Crismans have presented the board with a copy of a contract between the town and the Kanabec County Highway Department, showing that the board contracted with the county to plow Hornet Street in 1983 — within the 40-year window. But board members rejected that evidence, saying they had spoken with longtime town employees and former town officials who don't recall any plowing of the stretch leading to the Crisman property.

Last week, Kanabec County District Judge Stoney Hiljus ruled that state law doesn't allow a town to vote to maintain only part of a road. In effect, the judge ruled, it's all or nothing.

Schmoll called the ruling "a Hail Mary," adding, "We had this in front of the electors in 2017."

The Crismans were hoping the latest ruling would end the case, but the board may be preparing an appeal, according to the Crismans' lawyer, Sarah Jewell.

"It could have been over," she said. It's not expensive for a township to fight a legal battle, she added, because the town gets legal representation through the Minnesota Association of Townships. Jewell said township records show that the town has spent just $180 in legal fees so far on the road dispute.

Meanwhile, the Crismans "are not wealthy people with a war chest for litigation," she said. The township has a general fund balance of $102,613 and a road and bridge fund balance of $67,871, according to its most recent treasurer's report.

The Crismans said they had hoped the board might drop the case.

"It's just really disappointing," Renee Crisman said.