FIELD TWP— A landowner here is vowing to fight an effort by a Canadian National Railway subsidiary to acquire land currently owned by him and his sister through eminent domain. The railroad, with …
FIELD TWP— A landowner here is vowing to fight an effort by a Canadian National Railway subsidiary to acquire land currently owned by him and his sister through eminent domain. The railroad, with the backing of the St. Louis County Board, is seeking to obtain an easement from Jim Beatty and his sister Sharon Beatty in order to reroute a portion of Wood Road, effectively closing a current rail crossing.
The two-mile-long section of Wood Road runs south-to-north, connecting East Olson Road with a mile-long segment of the dead-end Winnifred Road, crossing the CN rail line along the way. CN officials have been attempting to reduce the number of rail crossings along the route, which, in Minnesota, extends from International Falls to Duluth.
CN’s affiliate, Wisconsin Central Ltd., has been working with St. Louis County Public Works for four years to work out the details of the proposed rerouting of Wood Road, but Beatty said neither he nor his sister had been notified of the plans until an attorney for the railroad wrote them in mid-April that the railroad intends to acquire an easement through their property through eminent domain. The railroad followed up on that threat, filing for a quick-take order and condemnation against Sharon Beatty in Sixth District Court on June 9. A hearing on the request is set for Aug. 28 in Duluth.
“I’m going to fight it with everything I can muster,” said Jim Beatty.
Beatty said he’s most concerned about the lack of a public process and the consideration of alternatives to the proposed re-routing of the road, which would encroach closely on his sister’s front yard, eliminating a buffer of trees that mostly blocks her view, and reduces the sound, of the CN rail line.
“To my mind, the county didn’t do its due diligence,” said Beatty. “They decided on this route without any consideration of alternatives.” Township officials in Field say they weren’t consulted, either, about the proposal.
Beatty, in a May 24 letter to St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray, asks for the county to withdraw its support for the project, but county officials have rejected that request. In a June 14 letter in response, St. Louis County Deputy Administrator Brian Fritsinger argues that the project is in the broader public interest and noted that the county had explored a number of alternatives ever since Wisconsin Central approached the county with the proposal back in 2013. Fritsinger said concern about the rail crossing had increased after CN installed a rail siding near the site for switching rail cars. The switching process could take a significant amount of time and frequently blocked traffic on Wood Road for extended periods, causing an inconvenience for residents of that portion of Wood and Winnifred roads, who are effectively cut off when the rail crossing is blocked. “Not only does this create a major disruption for these residents, it also eliminates access for emergency services to their homes,” wrote Fritsinger.
County road engineer Vic Lund said the situation is untenable for the four or five residents who live on Winnifred Road, who can be stuck at times for hours when the trains are switching cars. “They can’t go on like this,” said Lund, who acknowledges that the road reroute will impact the Beattys’ property. “There’s no way to slice and dice that,” he said. “But we’re in a very fortunate situation in which the railroad acknowledges a problem, which they rarely do. And not only that, they’re willing to pay for it.”
Lund said the county did explore other options, such as extending Winnifred Road to the east to hook up with County Road 24, but Lund said that route would impact significant wetlands and was unlikely to be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. It would also have been considerably more expensive, notes Lund.
The county board unanimously authorized the acquisition of a new right of way for the planned road reroute back in February at the recommendation of county administrator Kevin Gray and Public Works Director Jim Foldesi. Under the county’s agreement with CN, the railroad would pay the cost of acquiring and recording the right-of-way as well as engineering and construction of the new 4,900-foot long section of Wood Road, which would run directly adjacent to the east side of the CN line, from the site of the current rail crossing southeast to East Olson Road. Once completed, the county would take possession of the road.
While Beatty intends to fight the proposal, he acknowledges it is likely to be an uphill fight, one that even law firms he has contacted have recommended not taking on. “Everyone who has fought them has lost,” said Beatty. “My sister was told by a law firm to negotiate the best price and move on,” he said.
At this point, however, both Jim and his sister don’t appear ready to do that. “We’re planning to defend ourselves,” he said. “We’ll fight this eminent domain proceeding.”