Due to legal setbacks, the West Lake Drive project from Legion Road to County Road 6 has been postponed to next year, said Detroit Lakes City Engineer Jon Pratt.

“It’s unfortunate, but navigating this legal dispute is just taking longer than anyone could have assumed,” he said. “There’s just not enough time to bid and construct the project this year.”

Instead, the city will pivot to an early bidding process for the Willow Street project this year, which had been scheduled for 2022, Pratt said.

“We’ll try to get the Cheryl Avenue to Washington Avenue segment completed this summer, yet, with the focus on Cheryl to Rossman Avenue, and Rossman to Washington as a secondary, with the hope of having it all completed this summer,” he said. “It will take a little bit of juggling, but we’re working through it.”

Becker County has launched two separate, but interrelated, legal actions designed to secure the right-of-way for the West Lake Drive project. (West Lake Drive is in city limits, but the county is involved because it is a county state aid highway).

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The city and county plan to rebuild the street, add a multi-use trail on the lake side, add curb and gutter, bury the utility lines, and add buried stormwater treatment infrastructure. About 50 homes are affected, and the project was expected to cost about $3.5 million if done this year.

But before the project can start, the county has to prove right-of-way ownership on that segment of West Lake Drive, and that has been a struggle.

Deeds and property titles along that portion of West Lake Drive, from Legion Road to County Road 6, don’t show a public right of way, and several of those property owners banded together and hired Twin Cities attorney Steve Quam to contest the project.

Hoping to complete this project this year, Becker County launched two legal efforts:

The first is a quiet title action to determine how much right-of-way the county has and where it is located. (Quiet title is an action lawsuit meant to help clear title to real property and establish a title to the property).

The second is an eminent domain proceeding, in which private land is taken from an unwilling seller for public use.

Otter Tail County District Judge Sharon G. Benson ruled that the county does indeed have authority to take the private land for public use, but at the same time, the judge shot down the county’s “quick-take” request.

The judge agreed with the property owners that the county failed to follow the correct process for a quick-take condemnation. The county asked the judge to reconsider the decision, and the defense asked her not to. The defense prevailed, and now the county has some time-consuming legal hoops to jump through before it can obtain the right-of-way through eminent domain.

For example, it will apparently have to provide new valuations on the property it hopes to acquire, rather than use the 2019 valuations it had available.

“There is a process to acquire property through eminent domain,” Quam said. “My clients are asking government to follow the process.”

He added that both the quiet title action and the eminent domain cases “are complicated by the fact that the underlying critical document was crafted in 1873 and was not found until (several months) after the county commenced its lawsuit. So the county said one thing (in court) prior to the document being found and another thing after.”

The situation is also complicated by the legal description in the 1873 document, which “seems to put the original road in the lake,” Quam said.

The county disputes that, and its surveyor puts the original roadway roughly where it is now, he said.

(Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald, who is handling both cases for the county, is in the middle of a criminal trial and did not respond to an interview request.)

Quam said the judge set a hearing for later this summer to decide where the original 1873 road was laid out.

That issue is “super interesting for a kid who grew up on Detroit Lakes and probably ran around the lake a hundred times,” Quam said. ”If there’s a reasonable solution out there, we’d love to work with the county to find it,” he added.

Monte Ashmore, who lives on West Lake Drive, called the Tribune to say property owners are not opposed to improving the roadway.

“We’re not against the West Lake Drive road construction,” he said. “We get the feeling that people think we’re against the project itself … We just feel they are ramming it down our throats and we have no say.”

Property owners are just looking for a fair shake from the government, he added. “The county is supposed to go with a good-faith effort to set a fair price,” he said. “I believe Steve Quam has proven the city doesn't have a 66-foot right-of-way,” and the county should have then upped its offer, he said.

Ashmore said he was originally offered $17 a square foot, or about $1,750, for the loss of his property. “The last offer was $2,100. We were told to take it or it would be the last offer ... I think lakeshore property is worth a lot more than that,” he said. “We want to be paid a fair market value for the property.”

He is also strongly opposed to a paved trail being part of the road project. “Me and my neighbors, we have to kick people off our beach every week, if they put in curb and gutter and a bike path, it’s just going to magnify that ... nobody who has lake property would want a bike path running through their lakefront.”