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Boundary Comm. to make recommendation (07/27/2008)
By Cynthya Porter

After studying the matter for many months, the Winona County Boundary Commission is preparing to offer a recommendation to the County Board that could put some Elba boundary disputes to rest forever.

Or at least they hope so.

With disagreeing surveys over the past several decades drawing property lines sometimes dozens of feet one way or another, Lot 80 in Elba has been fraught with discontent for more than a decade.

Winona County officials formed the Boundary Commission, made up of surveying and other land use professionals, to dissect the claims of ownership and propose a final plat drawing to resolve disputed lines.

County surveyor Pat Veraguth said to formulate the recommendation the committee studied land deeds, actual use, and the locations of original and subsequent survey markers placed between 1855 and today.

What they found during that examination was a maze of deed gaps, overlaps, misplaced markers and encroachments that have produced significant controversy among some Lot 80 residents in recent years.

The problem, Veraguth said, appears to have largely begun in the mid-1970s when a survey placed the center section of Lot 80 in the wrong location.

The landowner at the time began dividing up parcels based on that survey, homes and roads were built and descriptions were drafted.

A 1998 survey using historical information about the section corners rather than the post set in the 1970s drew property lines according to the original placement of the center section, and everyone's property lines shifted.

That shift sent boundaries across roadways, through foundations and past fences, and some property owners have fought bitterly ever since.

The proposal likely to be issued by the Boundary Commission, Veraguth said, would largely redraw boundaries in Lot 80 based on the 1975 survey, since through adverse possession over the decades that is how the land was largely viewed anyway.

Veraguth said surveyor Dave Johnson is reviewing the proposed solution with regard to the language of land titles, after which the recommendation will go to the County Board for review.

Some property owners gain a little, some lose a little under the proposal, but several had already come to amicable agreements about where the line should be drawn between them.

Gary Thelen stands to gain the most through the forthcoming recommendation, with the Boundary Commission proposing the property line be redrawn south of his foundation rather than through the center of it.

Betty Jo and Jose Rico, the property owners adjoining Thelen's land, have fought for years to force Thelen to move or abandon the house, a 5,000-square-foot fieldstone and timber structure.

The parties have amassed more than 30 police reports between them, including for assault, vandalism, theft and harassment.

While Thelen would gain back the land his home stands on, the recommendation would have him trading land he owns to the south of the Ricos in exchange, leaving the parties with essentially the same holdings.

For all of the property owners in Lot 80, the proposed resolution contains compromises that the Boundary Commission felt had to be made to equitably solve the matter.

In the case of land overlaps, the oldest deed will retain the property by law, Veraguth said, but there likely won't be tax restitution for double payments made on the same acreage over the years.

Veraguth will present the recommendation to the County Board August 12, and the Boundary Commission will reconvene in Elba August 19 to share the proposal with residents.

It has been an inordinately time-consuming process, Veraguth said, unable to calculate the hours spent by his office or that of County Recorder Bob Bambenek researching land titles. But with what the commission believes is a workable recommendation in hand, this land dispute might finally be over. "Hopefully there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Veraguth said.

For the recommendation to be adopted, the county will have to hold a public hearing on the matter and then ask a Winona County District Court judge to accept the proposal as the final word on land ownership in Lot 80.

For property owners, the amounts gained and lost in the proposal are relatively small, typically amounting to a few acres or less. The legal cost to fight the Boundary Commission's recommendation in court could likely far outweigh the value of the land being fought over, Veraguth said.

While Veraguth agreed this region could be called the poster child for land disputes, it is more so the poster child for why buyers and owners should have their land professionally surveyed before purchasing or building.  


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