This was no garden-variety eviction hearing, North Central District Judge William McLees told lawyers for the North Dakota State Fair Association and the Ward County Historical Society on Monday.
The two parties were in court over a dispute about the future of the historical society's Pioneer Village Museum. The State Fair Association served the historical society with an eviction notice last month seeking to have all but the original museum building removed from the fairgrounds at the expense of the historical society. The historical society board has consistently refused to move the museum, stating that they have a right to remain under the terms of a 1966 contract agreement between the Northwest Agriculture Livestock and Fair Association and the North Dakota State Fair Association.
State Fair Association attorney Peter Hankla and State Fair manager Renae Korslien both characterized the relationship between the State Fair and the historical society as one between landlord and tenant, with the museum operating on state-owned land and no agreement giving them indefinite use of the property. Hankla described the action as a simple eviction proceeding, much like the many between private parties that McLees has heard before.
Historical society lawyer Debra Hoffarth countered that it is not a landlord-tenant relationship, as there is no written lease, the historical society does not pay rent to the State Fair and there is no written contract giving terms for termination of the contract. Precedent has also been set because the museum has operated on the fairgrounds since the early 1950s and has moved buildings onto the grounds after the 1966 contract agreement was signed, without the State Fair Association taking action to stop them, she said. Rather than a landlord-tenant relationship, Hoffarth said she believes the agreement between the State Fair and the historical society would be correctly characterized as an "easement of estoppel." An easement of estoppel refers to an easement that is created when the conduct of the owner of land leads another to reasonably believe that he or she has an interest in the land so that he or she acts or does not act in reliance on that belief, according to a definition given at (www.uslegal.com).
The language and intent of the 1966 agreement was at the heart of the testimony during the three-hour court hearing, with each side interpreting it differently. The April 1966 agreement states "that the North Dakota State Fair Association will allow the Northwest North Dakota Historical Society to maintain and operate its building located on the fairgrounds." Though the historical society board did not sign the contract at the time, they are a third party beneficiary of the agreement, according to Hoffarth.
Hankla told McLees that the Fair Association believes that "building" referred to the museum's building that was on the grounds when the agreement was drafted. Ward County Historical Society president Bruce Brooks testified that he believes that "building" referred to that building and subsequent buildings moved onto the grounds, as the historical society built up its museum over the years. Brooks testified that historical society records show there were actually two buildings on the grounds at the time the agreement was drafted: a historic courthouse building moved to the site in 1952 or 1953 that had originally been located in Burlington, and a metal building that is now used as a warehouse that was moved to the site in 1954. An additional 11 or 12 buildings were moved to the grounds between the mid 1960s and 1994. Brooks said many of those buildings were apparently moved to the grounds on the basis of verbal "handshake agreements" between the State Fair Board and the historical society.
Further muddying the waters, Richard B. Thomas, the attorney who drafted the agreement in 1966, testified that he believed the building referred to in the agreement was a stucco building that housed the offices of the Northwest Agriculture Livestock and Fair Association and hadn't been aware that there were any museum buildings on the grounds at the time. Thomas, who was then the state's attorney, said he didn't believe that the agreement gave the historical society any long-term rights to the property.
Brooks testified that the Ward County Historical Society has spent approximately $436,000 to restore the museum after it was heavily damaged during the Souris River Flood of 2011. Most of that funding, $400,000, came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but Brooks said about $36,000 in matching funds was raised locally. Brooks said the historical society board would not have invested the money into restoring the buildings had it known that the Fair Association would try to have them evicted from the fairgrounds two and a half years later. Brooks also said the museum would suffer serious damages if forced to relocate the buildings. The majority of the museum's visitors come during the North Dakota State Fair and the Norsk Hostfest and they would be unlikely to visit the museum if it were relocated, he said. Brooks also said some of the buildings could be moved but at least one, a historic log cabin, would likely be destroyed if they try to move it.
The dispute over the museum has been brewing for more than a year. The State Fair Association wants the museum moved off the grounds so it can use the property for expansion and for its current needs.
McLees said he will not issue a ruling until after Feb. 21, the deadline he set for the two lawyers to submit their court briefs.