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County found 'negligent' in Hinds Lake lawsuit

Hubbard County District Judge Paul Rasmussen determined that a garbage-hauling business on Hinds Lake operated illegally. City Sanitary Services, formerly owned by Dale Anderson and currently owned by Nick Davis, began in 1976. This photo was taken by the plaintiff, John Knoblauch, in 2012. Knoblauch's property adjoins Anderson's on Hinds Lake. (Submitted photo)

A Hinds Lake resident successfully concluded a 40-year battle to stop a garbage-hauling business from operating on the lakeshore.

The case went to trial in September in Hubbard County District Court. In a decision filed on Dec. 30, Judge Paul Rasmussen concluded that Hubbard County "negligently and incorrectly" took the position that the business predated the county's own shoreland management ordinance (SMO) and "failed to perform its duty" of enforcing the rules.

Rasmussen issued a writ of mandamus, ordering Hubbard County to enforce the SMO and requiring defendants "to complete relocation of the business" by Sept. 1, 2018.

A decades-long fight

Hinds Lake is a "recreational development lake" pursuant to the Hubbard County Shoreland Management Ordinance, enacted in 1971. The lake is located near Hubbard in Straight River Township.

In 1978, John Knoblauch's father and neighbors hired a lawyer and wrote a letter to the county complaining about the refuse business.

Knoblauch owns property adjacent to Dale Anderson on Blue Spruce Drive. Anderson owns two lakefront lots with a home and an outlot. Both of Anderson's properties are located within the shoreland management district.

During the trial, Anderson testified that he started using the lot for his garbage-hauling business in 1976, operating under the name "City Sanitary Service."

Under the county's SMO, a waste-hauling business is not allowed.

The judge noted the county also has a solid waste ordinance that defines and regulates junkyards. It, too, prohibits operation within the shoreland impact zone.

At the time, Vern Massie was Hubbard County's Planning/Zoning Administrator and Solid Waste Officer.

In his findings of fact, Rasmussen wrote, "Over the years, county officials investigated numerous complaints related to Anderson's garbage business on outlot 2, but apparently conducted no investigation whatsoever regarding the most serious complaint of all — that the garbage business shouldn't even be there. An allegation that a garbage business is unlawfully operating in a residential area is, obviously, a significant matter that calls for a competent investigation."

In a letter, dated May 1978, Massie took the position that Anderson's garbage business was "grandfathered in as a preexisting, nonconforming use."

"This is an odd assertion, as going back four years would only get us back to 1974 (three years after the SMO had been enacted)," wrote the judge.

In its answer filed July 2016, the county continued to assert that the business was a legal, nonconforming use. In its final written argument, the county acknowledged that it erred.

According to affidavits, testimony and county records, numerous complaints were made to the county over the years. Hinds Lake residents complained about the offensive sight, smell and sound.

Rasmussen wrote, "It appears that the county responded to most or all of these complaints and that Anderson did usually comply with remedial directives. It also appears, however, that Anderson repeatedly violated provisions of the solid waste ordinance . . .and his property was an eyesore and a nuisance to neighbors."

City Sanitary Service operated full time and year 'round.

Knoblauch testified that at various times Anderson had as many as 23 dumpsters, 12 vehicles and 10 to 12 rolloff dumpsters on the lake lot.

In 2011 or 2012, Anderson purchased a 7-acre parcel of land off Highway 71. He built a large shop and claimed he moved his business from his Hinds Lake lot to the new property in the spring of 2014.

Anderson's grandson, Nick Davis, purchased City Sanitary Service in 2012. Davis is currently the sole owner.

Along with Hubbard County, Anderson and Davis were defendants in the lawsuit.

According to information filed by Knoblauch, Anderson removed about 30 dumpsters of junk from the lot, however, container, dumpsters, old packer truck bodies, a garbage truck full of garbage and metal dumpsters are still onsite.

At trial, the county took the position that there is not a current violation.

Anderson claimed the remaining equipment is now "personal property" that he might some day use for a "project," but Rasmussen did not find Anderson's testimony credible.

Rasmussen stated that "storage of business equipment is a business function."

A garbage truck does not qualify as a personal item, he said. "A packer truck does not magically lost its status as business equipment because it is not in use."

"In addition, the evidence established that Anderson has illegally burned solid waste, that he has buried unknown materials on the property and that there may be oil and other contaminants on outlot 2 from years of illegal use," Rasmussen said. "The court does not believe it can order the county to do so, but it is of the opinion that the county should work with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) to have the site tested and remediated."

Rasmussen awarded Knoblauch $20,000 in nuisance damages, which must be paid by Anderson and City Sanitary Service each.

"The court finds it disappointing that, rather than make things right for the residents on Hinds Lake, the county dug in with a denial of any obligation to remedy a nuisance that it negligently allowed to exist for the better part of four decades," wrote the judge.

"The reality here, it was a huge wrong," agreed Knoblauch in a phone interview, adding that taxpayers are footing the county's legal bill.

Knoblauch has accrued $85,000 in attorney's fees. But he promised his dying father a few years back that he'd put away enough money for legal fees to keep the fight going.

His family has owned the Hinds Lake lot since the 1940s.

"The fact we had to go to such extreme lengths to get them to do their jobs — that's why we have such a heartache with this county. They could've shut them [City Sanitary Services] down," Knoblauch said.

Hubbard County reaction

"Hubbard County has received the District Court's decision and we are currently exploring options with our attorney," stated Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden. "Regardless of the outcome of this litigation, Hubbard County will continue our efforts to protect the natural resources and lakeshore of Hubbard County, while balancing the private property interests of our citizens."

Scott Anderson, a Minneapolis attorney, is representing the county in this case.

The county board will meet with him during their Jan. 16 meeting, in a closed session.

To date, the county has been billed $48,534 in legal fees, according to County Coordinator Debbie Thompson.

In a phone interview, Scott Anderson pointed out that two neighbors who testified had their wells tested for contaminants. Both said the tests showed no pollution.

When asked whether the county will appeal the court decision, Anderson said, "I can't say there is any decision made on that yet."

In reviewing all of the records, Anderson said there were 20 years where there were no complaints. All complaints made within the last decade were dealt with by the county solid waste and county environmental services offices, he noted. A number of inspections were conducted at the site.

"I think the county does a great job of enforcing up there and they're committed to it," Anderson said.

Complaints were passed on to the MPCA, he said.

Meanwhile, Knoblauch still seeks the resignation of both Massie and Hubbard County Environmental Service Officer Eric Buitenwerf.

"I will be exhausting all legal remedies to hold these two people accountable for their actions, or they can resign. I have given this choice to them on a number of occasions," he said.