North Central District Court Judge William McLees has ordered that the Ward County Historical Society's Pioneer Village can remain on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds, at least for now.
McLees stayed the eviction action taken by the North Dakota State Fair Association against the historical society, pending further court proceedings that will help clarify the rights of each of the parties in the contract dispute.
The State Fair Association served the historical society with an eviction notice in January seeking to remove the museum from the fairgrounds. The Fair Association wants the museum off the grounds so it can use the property for other purposes.
The historical society argues that it has the right to remain under the terms of a 1966 contract between the Northwest Agriculture Livestock and Fair Association and the North Dakota State Fair Association, which said "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."
A hearing on the matter was held Feb. 4.
Peter Hankla, the attorney for the North Dakota State Fair Association, argued that there is a landlord-tenant relationship between the historical society and the Fair Association, even though there is no written lease agreement and the historical society hasn't been paying rent. "What the NDSFA is essentially asking the Court to do in this situation is to "fill in the blanks" and create a lease agreement between the NDSFA and the WCHS, in the absence of ANY evidence that this is what was intended (in the 1966 contract)," wrote McLees. "...This Court will respectfully DECLINE, at this juncture and based upon the present state of the record, the NDSFA's invitation to create a lease agreement "out of whole cloth."
Members of the North Dakota State Fair Board of Directors are Gary Knell, Hazen; Charles Meikle, Spiritwood; Lee Ann Karsky, Dickinson; Kandi Mikkelson, Minot; Neil Fleming, Cavalier; Dennis Wendel, LaMoure; Connie Hanson, Devils Lake; Butch Haugland, Ambrose; and Kelly Hanson, Hannaford.
Ward County Historical Society board members include president Bruce Brooks, vice president Angie Thompson, secretary Daniel Clegg and treasurer Bernice Galusha. Other board members include Glynn Breuer, Kim Breuer, Ron Neshem, Peggy Smetana and Chris Simmons.
In his decision, McLees wrote that he isn't prepared to dismiss the State Fair Association's eviction action out of hand, even though the evidence presented before him tends to suggest the relationship between the two parties is not a lease.
McLees noted that the same 1966 agreement does lay out the terms of a lease agreement between the State Fair and the Minot Curling Club. Presumably, if the State Fair had wanted to enter into a similar lease with the historical society, it could have done so, wrote McLees.
He also questions whether the North Dakota State Fair Association can seek to remove all but one building from the fairgrounds.
"The question then
becomes whether the NDSFA can "evict" the WCHS from the subject property on a piecemeal, building-by-building basis - or is is this an "all or nothing" proposition for the NDSFA?" McLees wrote.
The Fair Association asked to have all museum buildings except the building on the premises at the time of the 1966 agreement removed from the fairgrounds. The historical society maintains that the word "building" in the 1966 contract refers to all of the museum buildings and has argued that the 13 buildings in the pioneer village have been moved onto the grounds over the last four decades with the knowledge of the Fair Association which took no steps to stop them.
The Ward County Historical Society's lawyer, Debra Hoffarth, had argued that the relationship between the historical society and the State Fair is an "easement by estoppel," 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." McLees wrote that the "easement by estoppel" argument may be the historical society's strongest argument. However, since the state owns the fairgrounds, McLees wrote that a state statute might prevent the historical society from making such a claim.
McLees wrote that he has serious reservations about whether the dispute between the State Fair Association and the historical society can be solved with an eviction action.
"The Pioneer Village has had a presence on the North Dakota State Fairgrounds for sixty-plus years," wrote McLees. "The NDSFA wants to terminate that presence following a three-hour hearing, at which the Court heard testimony from just three witnesses one of whom presented a biased account (not unexpectedly) in favor of the NDSFA, and another an equally biased account (not unexpectedly) in favor of the WCHS. When all is said and done, the Court is persuaded that a declaratory judgement action is the proper route to go for the parties to obtain a final resolution of this dispute."