Hillman Township has won the latest — and perhaps final — round in a bitter fight over a rural Minnesota gravel road, as the state Court of Appeals ruled that the township has no duty to maintain the road to a private residence outside Mora, Minn.
In an opinion issued Monday, the court criticized the township for "gamesmanship" in favoring longtime residents over newcomers, but it said the law is clear.
For five years, Andy and Renee Crisman have tried to get the township to maintain the full length of Hornet Street, a half-mile gravel road to their home in rural Kanabec County. In 2017, they moved from the Twin Cities to a property at the end of the road that had often been unoccupied, eventually building a new home there.
During the years that their property was unoccupied, the township had stopped plowing and grading the final quarter-mile stretch of road. When the Crismans petitioned the township to maintain the road all the way to their home, voting residents at an annual meeting rejected them.
The Crismans continued to press for maintenance, angering township supervisors who believed the issue had been decided. Under Minnesota law, a township road that has not been maintained in more than 25 years is considered abandoned unless voters specifically approve the resumption of maintenance. A year ago, the township informed the Crismans that Hornet Street had officially ceased to exist.
The Crismans sued, and in November a Kanabec County district judge ruled in their favor. The township appealed, and the opinion handed down Monday ordered the lower court to reverse its decision. The appellate court ruled that the final quarter-mile of the road leading to the Crisman home met the 25-year rule, and the law plainly barred the township from maintaining it unless residents voted in favor.
The case has been tinged with anti-outsider sentiment among longtime residents of the county, and in its decision, the appellate court expressed regret for the way the Crismans have been treated.
"In closing," the judges wrote, "we note our sympathy to the Crismans' argument that the township is displaying gamesmanship by favoring established residents over new residents.
"We understand, as did the district court, that 'the Crismans, as homeowners and taxpayers, are frustrated that their efforts to be treated like their neighbors when it comes to the maintenance of the road leading to their home have been rebuffed by the [t]ownship.' "
But the judges' sympathy didn't outweigh their interpretation of the law.
In March, voters at the Hillman Township annual meeting resoundingly passed a resolution asking the township board to drop its appeal and resume maintenance of the road. But township supervisors said they had no intention of acting on that resolution.
"This has been wearing for our family," Renee Crisman said in a statement. "The ruling is disappointing given that, from the beginning, no one stood to gain anything by denying maintenance on Hornet [Street]."
It is not clear what the family's next move will be. The Crismans' attorney didn't respond to an email asking whether the family will appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Renee Crisman said the long fight has won them the support of many neighbors.
While the township board "may have thought they were sending us on a wild goose chase requiring us to gather signatures on a petition they'd never honor, we ended up gaining heartfelt support in the community," she said. "We are grateful for all our wonderful neighbors supporting us through this situation."