The West Lake Drive project is facing delays on the legal front by a dozen or so property owners and their lawyer who argue that Becker County has not established its claim to a 66-foot right-of-way on that stretch of roadway. The county says the claim dates back to the 1950s when that stretch of roadway was State Highway 59, but property owners say it does not show up on their property documents.
The $3.5 million joint Detroit Lakes-Becker County project would rebuild the street, the old-timey part of West Lake Drive, from where the City Beach ends at the American Legion, with wooded beachfront property that stretches along Little Detroit Lake to just before County Road 6. It would also add a multi-use trail on the lake side (separated from the street by a buffer strip), add curb and gutter, bury the utility lines and add stormwater treatment.
Becker County has filed suit to establish that it owns a 66-foot right-of-way on West Lake Drive and, if it loses, is preparing to take property for the project through eminent domain proceedings, if needed.
And although there are currently no plans for special assessments on property owners on West Lake Drive to help pay for the project, that could change if legal challenges and other delays cause the cost of the project to substantially increase. County commissioners briefly discussed the option of using special assessments at their Nov. 19 meeting.
The county has assessment powers, though it rarely uses them. Any move toward special assessments for the project would be the decision of the County Board and City Council, City Engineer Jon Pratt said.
On top of all that, the Minnesota Department of Transportation now wants to conduct a full archaeological study of land affected by the project, which will also slow down the construction timeline.
None of that makes for a quick project.
“The schedule is in flux right now,” Pratt said. “The plan was to start (next summer) after Water Carnival and substantially complete it before the end of the construction season. But the legal issues and archaeological review could affect that schedule.
“Maybe we get the thing bid next year and start construction the year after that, in 2021,” he said.
The project involves federal dollars in the form of a $350,000 city grant to be used for the trail and $1.1 million in federal funds to the county.
“Federal funds mean a more robust review process,” Pratt said.
It’s unusual for a full archaeological review to be done on property like West Lake Drive that has long been used as a roadway, Pratt said. Usually they are done on new roadway alignments, and that’s why the city and county are contesting that MnDOT decision, he said.
Owners have concerns
Several property owners interviewed Wednesday, Nov. 27, say they do not object to the street improvements. The wider footprint required to add the bike trail and buffer strip are their main objections, as well as the loss of established trees along the beach.
“We’re not opposed to them redoing the road, but they basically want to put a public bike path in the middle of our lakeshore property,” said Monte Ashmore, who lives on West Lake Drive. “Why not just blacktop 5 feet on either side of the street and you’ll never have a problem?”
Ashmore said his property abstract shows a 40-foot easement behind his house for sewer and water lines, but there is nothing documented that shows a 66-foot street right-of-way. He said he was offered $17 a square foot, or about $1,750, for the loss of his property. “I think lakeshore property is worth a lot more than that,” he said.
A block or so down the street, property owner Julie Herman said the reason the abstracts don’t show a 66-foot right-of-way is because the state failed to legally obtain one. “They implied they would do it years ago, but MnDOT never did it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they intended to.”
About 50 property owners will be affected by the project, and about a quarter of them, including Ashmore and Herman, have banded together to hire Twin Cities attorney Steve Quam, a former Detroit Lakes resident and a specialist in right-of-way, property disputes and eminent domain proceedings.
Quam said his 13 or 14 clients have mixed feelings about the project. "My issue is how wide is the road," he said. "My goal is not to stop the project -- just establish what rights the county really has. Because it (that stretch of roadway) is so old, it's not an easy question."
Property owner Steve Fuhs is worried about how the increased traffic on the multi-use trail will affect his family’s enjoyment of their lakeside stretch of property.
“We have a nice big area over there,” Fuhs said. “It’s one of the reasons I like the house, we spend a lot of time on that side.” But for whatever reason, strangers already feel comfortable using that private property along the lake, and sometimes are found lounging on the deck chairs and docks there. There’s a general concern that that problem will get worse with a public trail through that area, he said.
Pratt and County Highway Engineer Jim Olson said the loss of property might affect property owners less than they fear, because the overall footprint will not increase that much.
“The misconception is that this is going to result in a major shift in the road,” Pratt said. “It’s really just impacting the ditch area (along the residential side of the street)."
“Six- to 8-feet closer to homes is a concern to property owners, I understand," Olson said. “But most of that is taking up the ditch area.”
And it will improve the aesthetics of the area to get the overhead utility lines buried, and to replace the ditch with curb and gutter, Pratt added.
The lake will benefit from new underground infiltration chambers to treat stormwater runoff as well, Olson said. The existing system is “a rural design,” he added. “It runs directly into the lake ... this is our opportunity to do the right thing environmentally.”
And the design has been tweaked to shave 2 feet off the overall footprint, by cutting the 5-foot buffer zone to 4 feet, and the 10-foot trail to 9 feet, he said.
“We’re trying to minimize impacts,” Olson said. “We made some adjustments from the house to the lake side.”
A final proposal
Several of the property owners said Pratt has been good to work with, but they hadn’t seen any recent plans, and they look forward to seeing a final proposal.
“The numbers keep changing,” said Herman, adding that the property owners wanted 4 feet shaved off the project footprint, and last she heard the city and county had agreed to shave off 3 feet. “Now it’s 2 feet,” she said.
“That’s as far as we can go,” Pratt said. “To narrow it more gets to the point where it sacrifices function and safety.”
The property owners were also concerned about the possible loss of trees for the project.
“It’s upsetting to all of us because we like the natural look of it (the neighborhood),” Ashmore said. “Every property is unique here, and it disrupts some more than others.”
“The biggest thing we’re trying to protect is our property rights, for everyone,” Herman said. “It’s about being fair, and being fair to my neighbors … It will be beautiful when it’s done, I just hope we can come to an agreement on the width of the total project.”