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Council, officials meet in closed session to discuss possible Westwind lawsuit

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WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council, Mayor Les Heitke and city officials met in closed session Monday evening with two lawyers to discuss a possible lawsuit against the city by the developers of the proposed Westwind Estates housing project.

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Clifford Greene of the Green Espel law firm of Minneapolis said the threat of litigation by project developers Southwest Minnesota Housing Partnership of Slayton is what triggered the conversations with the council.

Green was joined by Paul Merwin, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Both were appointed to represent the city. Greene and Merwin met briefly with the Tribune following the two-hour session at the City Office Building.

"At this stage of the game, we're at more the conversations between lawyers,'' Greene said. "But they have indicated that they believe the denial of the conditional use permit was unlawful and that they would be prepared to go to court to challenge that, if need be.''

The project's conditional use permit, which was approved by the Willmar Planning Commission, was overturned by the Board of Zoning Appeals on March 31. The board said the Westwind twin-home development will substantially diminish or impair property values of nearby existing single-family homes.

Monday's session was the second closed meeting held to discuss possible litigation. The first closed session was held just before the regular council meeting on April 21. The Minnesota Open Meeting Law lets a public body meet in closed session to consult with the public body's attorney on pending litigation.

Greene said the lawyers introduced themselves and learned more about the project during the first meeting. The second meeting gave everyone an opportunity to explore conversations that might be taking place in upcoming days "to see if there are options that are worthy of City Council consideration in the future,'' said Greene.

He did not know if there will be future closed sessions.

"To the extent that there is public business that needs to be transacted, it would be transacted in public,'' he said.

Greene said he has had communication with partnership representatives "where they've been very explicit about the nature of their claims and their intentions.''

The lawsuit has not started, he said.

Greene said a comment or information may be shared with the public at the next council meeting on May 5, depending on whether conversations with the other side produce any ideas. "On the other hand, there may not be,'' he said.

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