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Elba land dispute solution offered (08/13/2008)
By Cynthya Porter

Winona County Commissioners received their first look Tuesday at a recommendation the Boundary Commission hopes will end disagreement in a corner of Elba where neighbors have been in conflict for decades.

After more than a year spent wading through property descriptions, old survey marks and actual land use patterns, members of the Boundary Commission arrived at a proposed plat drawing they believe is equitable and reasonable for ten land parcels located in Lot 80 in Elba.

Winona County Surveyor Pat Veraguth told the County Board that copies of the proposed boundary lines were sent to each property owner last week. Boundary Commission members will gather at City Hall in Elba next Tuesday to go over that proposal with landowners in person, but Veraguth already knows some are unhappy. “I’ve heard from a few property owners,” he said. “Nothing really good. It could be an interesting meeting.”

With a stack of police reports on file between some neighboring property owners in Lot 80, a Winona County sheriff’s deputy stood watch over the last Boundary Commission meeting in Elba though the proceedings were uneventful.

At that meeting, several property owners reached mutual agreement over the location of the boundary between their properties.

But others remained enmeshed in bitter dispute, citing conflicting surveys and adverse possession as their legal right to the land. For those parcels, Boundary Commissioners met in July to review data and make their own recommendation for how the lines should be drawn.

David Johnson of Johnson and Scofield Surveying told the County Board Tuesday that Lot 80 contains a number of conflicting legal descriptions, some with ambiguous language and some created before section corners were established. “The boundaries did not fit the lines of occupation, and there is a lot of conflict,” Johnson said.

At least one section of land was owned on paper by two individuals, and several more boundary questions stemmed from landowners overextending their land use onto neighboring parcels.

But the bulk of discontent in this section of Elba was caused by a survey conducted in 1975 from which much of the land was subdivided. That survey set the center of Lot 80 incorrectly, Veraguth believes, though for 30 years property owners have maintained parcels according to those lines.

A new survey in 1998 corrected the mistake but shifted boundaries for every property owner in the affected area.

The proposal generated by the Boundary Commission redraws many property lines close to those placed by the 1975 survey. Other parcels give a little and take a little to accommodate driveways and foundations, but most are left with essentially the same amount of land.

The boundary between Gary Thelen and Jose and Betty Jo Rico, which has been the most contentious land debate in Elba, was drawn to give Thelen just enough land to keep his house were it is. But the Ricos were given enough land on the south border of their property to accommodate their driveway without being forced to move it.

After gathering feedback from Elba residents, the proposed plat will be the subject of a public hearing on September 23.

After that hearing, the county attorney’s office will petition Winona County District Court for judicial approval of the plat.

The proposal could still undergo changes at the hands of the County Board or a judge, but once approved by the court it will become the official land drawing for Lot 80.

Property owners will have to share the cost for the process, including fees to surveyors and county departments involved with the Boundary Commission. If the costs exceed $500 each, the county may provide a payment agreement to extend between three and ten years for property owners.

To avoid the judicial review process, each property owner affected would have to sign off on the proposed plat, and Veraguth said he does not envision that happening.

Because the changes occur within the established boundaries for Lot 80, Johnson said he does not see the changes having a domino effect on neighboring lots.

Even so, similar boundary disputes exist elsewhere in Elba and throughout Winona County, Veraguth said. This Boundary Commission was formed to specifically address issues in Lot 80, making formation of a new commission necessary if the County Board wants to resolve other land disputes. 


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