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Minnesota River trail litigation to continue, could reach the Minnesota Supreme Court

GRANITE FALLS -- Plans for a recreational trail along the Minnesota River in Chippewa County could be going to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

City Council members in Granite Falls voted unanimously this week to appeal a recent district court decision on the case to the state's high court, according to City Manager Bill Lavin.

The city will be appealing a March 11 ruling by District Judge Paul Nelson.

In the ruling, the judge concurred with three railroads that are challenging the city's plans for the trail. He agreed that jurisdiction over whether the city should be able to acquire land from the railroads for the trail belongs to the federal Surface Transportation Board, which oversees all railroad activities in the country.

Attorney Kevin Stroup of Marshall, who is representing the city on a pro bono basis, said council members made it clear they have no intention of raising the white flag in the case. He said the issues at stake for communities across the state make it too important a matter.

The latest action is part of rollercoaster litigation that has seen the city win some and lose some to the other parties in the case, the Twin Cities and Western Railroad, Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway and Soo Line Railroad.

The city is seeking to develop a five-mile-long recreational trail alongside the outer right of way of the Twin Cities and Western Railroad line between Granite Falls and Wegdahl. There, the proposed trail would connect to an existing trail between Wegdahl and Montevideo.

Four years ago, Granite Falls started legal action to acquire the 25-foot-wide path through the use of eminent domain. District Judge Nelson and a three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals both ruled that the city had the right to do so.

However, the railroads charged that the matter was the responsibility for the federal Surface Transportation Board and not the state courts.

In the March 11 ruling, Judge Nelson stated that Congress has essentially given "exclusive" authority to the Surface Transportation Board for all types of matters involving railroads.

However, in a memorandum accompanying the order, the judge also pointed out the tension that exists at the heart of the legal issues in this case. Condemnation of railroad property for crossings is usually accepted.

But, the judge also pointed out, "taking land longitudinally along and within railroad right of way is more problematic.''

Stroup said the city believes that eminent domain is a constitutional authority and consequently a matter for the courts.

The attorney estimated that it will be anywhere from six to nine months before the city learns whether the Minnesota Supreme Court will hear the appeal.