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Willmar seeks ownership of farmland for planned sewer line corridor

WILLMAR -- A district court judge heard testimony Thursday morning on the city of Willmar's request to take immediate possession of farmland where sewer lines would be constructed for the new wastewater treatment plant.

WILLMAR -- A district court judge heard testimony Thursday morning on the city of Willmar's request to take immediate possession of farmland where sewer lines would be constructed for the new wastewater treatment plant.

The hearing before Judge David Mennis in Kandiyohi County District Court, which began at about 10 a.m., was recessed at 12:15 p.m. because the judge had other matters scheduled Thursday afternoon. The hearing will resume at 9 a.m. Feb. 7.

The city is asking the court to order the title and possession of farmland parcels be transferred to the city as of Feb. 1. Some of the landowners along the proposed sewer line corridor are opposing the city's request.

The city has selected a sewer line corridor that runs westerly along 28th Avenue Southwest (then generally along 30th Avenue Southwest outside of the city limits) to the treatment plant site just west of County Road 116.

Landowners want a route that skirts their property, but which city consultants say would add $7.75 million to the cost of the $80.5 million sewer line and treatment plant project.

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This was the second time both sides have met in district court hearings.

During the first hearing on July 6, 2007, the city asked the court for the right to enter the properties to appraise the land, do soil tests and delineate wetlands to evaluate the best location of the sewer line corridor.

About a week later, the court ruled in the city's favor.

Thursday's hearing was the beginning of the condemnation process, according to landowner attorney William Smoley.

During an interview, Smoley said the court will decide if a public purpose or necessity exists to acquire ownership, and if the city followed the requirements of the city charter and condemnation statute before starting the process.

Smoley was joined by Igor Lenzner and John Kolb, all of St. Cloud.

Kolb told the Tribune that the landowners are not necessarily opposed to the city's acquisition.

"I think they all recognize the importance of the project for the city of Willmar. They all understand that it's necessary to put (in) a conveyance line.''

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He said the landowners' biggest concern is that the city is proposing to buy this property -- a 200-foot-wide swath of prime agriculture land -- rather than obtain easements, which would let the city use the property but which would remain in private ownership.

"Our clients generally believe that an easement could accomplish all of those same purposes,'' said Kolb.

He said city ownership would prevent continuing business and agricultural uses on the property and would restrict some future uses, which have nothing to do with the presence of the line.

"The line can exist, even with those activities going on over the top,'' he said.

The city was represented by Robert Lindall of Minneapolis. He said the city wants to acquire the right of way necessary to build sewer lines. Plans call for a line to transport municipal waste along with a pressure pipe to transport industrial waste from Jennie-O Turkey Store's two processing plants.

The city wants to build both lines along the route that has been chosen by the city, which involves these properties, and wants to acquire the right of way by way of "fee simple'' acquisition, rather than by permanent easement, said Lindall.

"Fee simple means the city would own the property outright, although we have indicated all along that we would do so subject to certain easements for the benefit of the adjacent owner, involving their ability to reconstruct (farmland) drain tile and where necessary to cross the property being acquired,'' said Lindall.

Also attending the hearing was Kandiyohi County Attorney Boyd Beccue. He said the county is a respondent or defendant because the county has an interest as a governmental subdivision for real estate taxes on the various properties being condemned.

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Also, Beccue said he was monitoring the case for the County Board. He said board members frequently have questions on major cases like this, and he said the county has an interest in county and judicial ditches that will receive the treated effluent from the new plant.

All the attorneys met with Mennis for about 30 minutes in his chambers before the hearing began. Lindall said the judge wanted to discuss the issues that were still in dispute and the city's and landowners' respective arguments.

The remainder of the morning was taken up by Lindall questioning Craig Holmes, who is Donohue and Associates' program manager for the project.

Holmes discussed various aspects of the project as related to the sewer line corridor and the reasons for outright buying parcels where the sewer line will be built rather than obtaining easements.

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