Right-of-way, or wrong?

Farm Bureau considers legal challenge on right-of-way policy

Jill Schramm/MDN Jerald Stroklund speaks at a Ward County Farm Bureau landowners’ forum Wednesday. County Commissioners Jim Rostad and Alan Walter are seated to his left.

The Ward County Farm Bureau is looking at legal action to correct what it believes is illegal taking of private property for road rights of way.

The Farm Bureau held a public forum Wednesday to allow residents to air their concerns about a county policy that requires landowners who plat properties of fewer than 40 acres to donate land for road right of way. Landowners at the meeting voiced displeasure with the policy and support for efforts of the Farm Bureau to eliminate the requirement and compensate or restore land to property owners who have already lost land.

Farm Bureau spokesman John Pietsch said the organization has hired legal representation. It has received contributions from the Ward County Farmers Union, a landowners group and individuals and continues to take memberships and donations to assist with legal costs

“What we have gotten back from our representation is that we do have a case,” Pietsch said.

The Farm Bureau is collecting information from landowners who have been affected by the county policy. Questionnaires were available at the meeting and continue to be available through the Farm Bureau office in Minot.

Jill Schramm/MDN Ward County Farm Bureau board member John Pietsch adjusts the microphone for Ward County Commission John Fjeldahl as he speaks to landowners at a Farm Bureau forum on right-of-way takings Wednesday at North Central Research Extension Center.

At issue is a “dedicate and donate” clause in plat documents that allows the county to take ownership of 75 feet of right of way on each side of the center of a county road and 40 feet on a township road or section line without compensating the landowner for the property.

“Dedicating and donating, to me, is something that you willfully do. If I donate something, someone isn’t holding a hammer over my head and saying you will either dedicate and donate this or you aren’t going to get it plotted. To me that’s almost extortion,” Pietsch said to audience applause.

Often in the past, landowners were unaware of what they were donating and did’t realize their lands had been taken until years later when the county initiated road work.

Jerald Stroklund, who lives south of Minot, said he agreed to “dedicate and donate” streets and alleyways because he assumed it was a standard language that didn’t apply to him because there were no streets or alleyways on his farmstead. He discovered he had lost about 1.5 acres more than 20 years later, when the county recently came to make improvements to Ward County Road 18.

“It was unscrupulous – you have to say almost crooked – the way that they worded it,” he said.

The county is entitled to a 33-foot easement from the center of a road for public transportation under state law. Landowners still own that property and pay taxes on it. The county pays landowners for the amount of right of way it uses when it builds a road project, unless the landowner has already lost that land through “dedicate and donate” in a plat document.

“It creates two types of landowners out there,” Pietsch said. “We don’t think it’s right that one landowner should be compensated and the other one won’t.”

County Commissioner John Fjeldahl shared landowner concerns. He noted townships that rely on the county for zoning object when the county comes in and takes 40 feet along township roads on plats. There have been a couple cases in which the county listened to landowner and township objections and found properties eligible for variances that dismissed the required land donations.

County Commissioner Alan Walter said the county takes right of way to ensure roads are safe.

“You cannot build a road in 66 feet of right of way, not the way they require it to be done. That’s why they went to 40 feet on each side of the section line, so they can build a road properly,” he said. “They are built for you, so you can do your business.”

Commissioners Shelly Weppler and Jim Rostad also attended the meeting.

Weppler said she contacted counties of Ward’s size and discovered other counties handle their right-of-way acquisitions in various manners. In one county, landowners who don’t donate land are required to dedicate another 40 acres as a no-build zone, she said.

Pietsch said he is aware of only two other counties with a policy similar to Ward County.

The topic of right-of-way taking was expected to come up at a Ward County Planning Commission meeting Thursday night. Fjeldahl said any change in the county policy is likely to start with the planning commission.