Minn. family may be trapped as town declares their access road doesn't exist
MORA, Minn. – The gravel road that Renee and Andy Crisman live on, the road they drive every day, has disappeared.
The gravel is still there. But in the midst of a bitter struggle with local officials just outside this central Minnesota city, Hillman Township supervisors informed the Crismans earlier this month that, in their view, the road has ceased to exist.
Now that it has been officially wiped off the map, the Crismans wonder whether the road will be a recognized route for mail and package deliveries. They wonder, too, whether the school bus will still come to pick up their three daughters, ages 4, 6 and 8.
Most of all, they wonder whether they could be blocked from their home by the neighbor who now controls the only access to their property, someone who's made it clear that he doesn't like the Crismans.
It's a classic city vs. country, outsiders vs. natives dispute. And neither side, wound up after more than four years of fighting, is holding back.
"People very much have the attitude that, 'You're from the Cities. You didn't grow up here. You don't belong,' " said Renee Crisman. "How dare you come up here and think you should have your road maintained that you pay taxes for?"
"They have a thing that they're way better and smarter than everybody else," said Danny Schmoll, a former township supervisor who, along with his mother, owns the land that the road runs across, adjoining the Crismans' 120-acre property.
Schmoll admits that he's given some thought to barricading the Crisman property.
"Supposedly, I could shut that road down now," said Schmoll, who raises beef cattle. "I have no intention of doing that. Their little girls have to get to the school bus. But if I could close that down for Andy and Renee, I would."
For Renee Crisman, the battle has become a matter of principle.
"They don't want us to have access to our own home," she said. "We thought, 'Are we going to fight this, or are we going to sit back and let them do this?' "
Ordered to stop plowing
Hornet Street was laid out as a township road in 1904, a half-mile, dead-end leg that runs off County Rd. 3, not far from Knife Lake. In recent decades, few people have lived on it. Mostly, it's been inhabited by the Schmoll family, but the Crismans' property at the end of the road has had several different occupants over the years.
Andy and Renee Crisman bought the property in 2013 and moved there from Shoreview in 2017, living at first in a small log cabin before building a new home.
As their property had been unoccupied for some time, the township had been maintaining and plowing the road only to the Schmoll place, about halfway along its length, leaving the remainder alone. In 2017, the Crismans went to a township meeting and asked the board to begin maintaining the road all the way to their home. That required a vote of all the township electors in attendance.
And they were resoundingly refused, according to both the Crismans and to Ryan Martens, the township board chair. The road was in disrepair, and residents thought the cost of fixing it would be too high.
So the Crismans fixed it themselves. Over the next two years, they spent tens of thousands of dollars having the road graded and graveled. They built a turnaround for the school bus. But they never went back a second time to formally ask for township maintenance, because by that time the dispute had started to heat up.
Since the township refused to plow the road to their place, the Crismans did their own plowing. But that didn't please the township, either. According to court documents, the sheriff was called three times to warn the Crismans that plowing a public road is against the law. They could face misdemeanor criminal charges.
It was strange, to say the least, that the township refused to plow their road but wouldn't let them plow it either.
There were other inconsistencies, Renee Crisman said. Such as, why did the township grant them a permit to build their house on a road it didn't intend to maintain?
A courtroom loss
There are several ways a township can relinquish a road, and it can be complicated. But one way under Minnesota law holds that if a township fails to "perfect its interest in a right of way" within 40 years, the road reverts to the landowner whose property it's on.
It's that 40-year rule that the township relied on in declaring that it had lost its right to the road, with the land reverting to the Schmolls. Township records, the board said, show that the portion of Hornet Street leading to the Crisman property hadn't been maintained in more than 40 years. Therefore, the township had lost its right to the road.
Andy Crisman said the 40-year rule has been misapplied in this case. That rule was never intended to cover a road such as his, he maintained. Rather, it was intended to allow landowners to recover their rights to roads that were literally forgotten by time — ancient paths so far gone that they'd been overgrown, hidden, and taken over by nature.
Last year, the Crismans sued the township in Kanabec County District Court, asking that the road be declared a township road and that the township be required to maintain it. In a ruling handed down in June, District Judge Stoney Hiljus ruled in favor of the township.
Riding the 'spite train'
Now that the Crismans have lost legal access to their home, the township is offering another option.
Earlier this summer, it extended a different gravel road on the far side of the Crisman land. It told the family they can get access to their home on that road — if they build a 600-foot driveway, at their own expense, through pasture land with a swampy spot in its middle.
That would cost thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, Renee Crisman said.
"We selected this option to help the Crismans so if the township lost interest [in Hornet Street] from the 40-year law, the Crismans would have legal access to their property," Martens, the board chairman, said in an e-mail.
The Crismans have asked the judge to re-examine and amend his order based on additional information they're offering. That request is pending. Meanwhile, they'll continue living among neighbors who, they readily acknowledge, don't like them and probably never will.
"We're not being treated fairly," Andy Crisman said. "The spite train has left the station, and here we are."
"Pretty much everybody has had enough of them now," said Schmoll. "I don't expect that they'll ever find a friendly face in Hillman Township ever again."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402