Families Losing Homes for Bike Trail

by Andrew Johnson
Minnesota county claims eminent domain over land owned for generations

A handful of Minnesota landowners could soon see their treasured riverfront property along the Mississippi River turn into a bike trail under eminent domain. For one man, this would mean losing land that has been in his family since 1896.

Dakota County is resorting to land seizures to build the Mississippi River Regional Trail in an effort to qualify for millions in federal land grants. The county must start be ready to start construction on the project by March 31 or else risk losing the funds. While most of the desired 127 acres for the project have already been acquired through purchases and negotiations, the few remaining holdouts are suing the county after officials sought “quick-take condemnation” of their property.

Sisters Nancy Drews and Joni Sargent, whose father wanted to pass the land along the river to his grandchildren before he passed away in November, are taking Dakota County to court after it reneged on previous negotiations. After numerous “good faith” meetings with the county, Drews and Sargent told the Hastings Star Gazette that they were in talks about an offer for one to two acres of their 10-acre property.

But in November, the same month their father died, the county commission voted to take the whole parcel. “The board has come to the conclusion that it is time to move forward,” one member said after the vote. “We’re just coming to the head now. It’s time to move forward.” In their vote, the county commission also seized the other remaining properties.

Drews, Sargent, and their neighbors argue the county didn’t have to take all the property for the project, which would also include a picnic area and dock along the river. A Dakota County lawyer countered that under Minnesota state law the county doesn’t have to prove the condemnation is “absolutely necessary,” but instead just “reasonably necessary or convenient for the furtherance of a proper purpose,” according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

On top of all that, the landowners say they’re not getting a fair price for their property. The county commission voted to pay a total of $2 million for the four remaining properties; Drews and Sargent contend that their father could have sold just his own land for $1.3 million a few years ago.

Wednesday afternoon marked the first day of the hearing in court, where backers of the landowners gathered outside the courthouse in support, even if some believe it is already a lost fight. “It’s a real sad thing,” Gunter Drews, Nancy’s husband, said. “History is going the way of the bulldozer again.”

The sisters said they will continue to do everything in their power to hold on to the land they grew up on. “It just means way too much to us,” Drews said. “We can’t lose it.”

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.