Right of way controversy continues

An effort to schedule a public hearing to amend Ward County’s controversial road right-of-way dedication policy went by the wayside Tuesday.

Commissioner Shelly Weppler’s motion to set a public hearing for October failed to get a second from any of the three commissioners who have been opponents of the existing policy on land donations for potential future road construction.

A motion to open a public hearing died at a Sept. 7 meeting after getting support only from Weppler and Commissioner Jim Rostad, who was absent Tuesday. Commissioners John Fjeldahl, John Pietsch and Howard “Bucky” Anderson opposed opening the hearing.

The proposed amendment eliminates a requirement that a landowner donate road right of way beyond the footage required in state law when forming an outlot. The right-of-way dedication only would be required when three or more outlots are platted.

The commission met Tuesday for the third time in recent months in executive session to discuss a lawsuit brought by the Ward County Farmers Union and Farm Bureau over the right-of-way rule. A federal judge had ruled for the county, but the case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Pietsch, who is a plaintiff in the case, has not participated in the executive sessions. He spoke about the commission’s recent reluctance to address the right-of-way policy to say that he believes the proposed ordinance revision doesn’t go far enough. He said he would like the ordinance to require the county to meet specific criteria to justify any taking of land through right-of-way donations.

He is not pushing for that type of ordinance at this time because of his connection with an active lawsuit, he said. However, he also does not want to quickly pass an inadequate ordinance that he would have to try to amend later after resolution of the court case.

“Let’s get it right the first time,” he said.

Fjeldahl also said there should not be such a rush to get a new ordinance in place that important issues get overlooked.

“There’s lots of details that have to be worked out,” he said.

Ordinance opponents want to see the lawsuit continue, in hopes of a favorable Supreme Court ruling. Pietsch said such a ruling would establish a precedent to deter other counties, or a future Ward County Commission, from enacting similar ordinances.

County commissioners had voted July 6 to suspend enforcement of the ordinance as it pertains to outlots platted along county roads. The commission had already suspended enforcement of the ordinance along township roads.

Weppler and Rostad say they oppose keeping an unenforced ordinance on the books. The county is out of compliance with its own ordinance, said Weppler, who has long supported easing right-of-way requirements but not eliminating stronger requirements for multi-plat properties.

“I think we need to get ourselves back in compliance,” she said. “This commission has made rules and we are ignoring those rules instead of addressing those rules.”

State’s Attorney Roza Larson has stated in the past that declining to enforce the ordinance raises issues of legality.

“Potentially illegal is not illegal until proven illegal,” Commissioner Fjeldahl said Tuesday.

The county commission’s handling of the matter has troubled members of the county planning commission.

The Ward County Planning Commission has held a hearing and recommended approval of the proposed ordinance change. The county commission’s decision not to take up the recommendation fueled considerable discontent among many of the planning commission members, according to Minot City Council members Stephan Podrygula and Carrie Evans, who represent the city on the planning commission and reported to the council Monday. Weppler also spoke of dissatisfaction on the planning board over the county’s stance in choosing to ignore rather than change the ordinance.


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