Supreme Court hears Midway Township case

A yearslong, back-and-forth legal battle between Midway Township, Proctor and Duluth landed at the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday. The case, at its core, is over an undeveloped, 92-acre parcel of land that the city of Proctor is attempting ...

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Nathan LaCoursiere, an attorney for the city of Duluth, addresses the Minnesota Supreme Court Wednesday morning. The screen behind him displays a PowerPoint presentation — the first time the technology has been used in an oral argument before the high court. (Screenshot from live videocast)

A yearslong, back-and-forth legal battle between Midway Township, Proctor and Duluth landed at the Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday.

The case, at its core, is over an undeveloped, 92-acre parcel of land that the city of Proctor is attempting to annex from Midway Township.


Perhaps more significantly, however, the high court is tasked with determining the rights of a city to absorb neighboring land over the objection of local officials.

A three-judge appeals panel in April granted Proctor the authority to incorporate a sizeable chunk of its neighboring township for the second time in recent years, overriding an orderly annexation agreement entered into by Midway and Duluth in 2013.


The parcel in question is owned by George Hovland III and his sister, Julie Ann Hovland Savalas, who requested that Proctor annex the property, potentially opening the door for development.

Proctor agreed to the move, passing an ordinance to incorporate the land, which is located along the high-traffic Interstate 35 corridor. But Midway Township, having recently fended off an attempt by Proctor to annex the township in its entirety, objected to the move - as did Duluth, which sought to have a say in the future development of the property.

An administrative law judge first ruled in Proctor's favor. But then 6th Judicial District Judge Eric Hylden determined that agreement between Midway and Duluth trumped Proctor's move. The Minnesota Court of Appeals provided the most recent reversal, writing that Proctor met the statutory requirements needed to acquire the parcel.

Nathan LaCoursiere, a former assistant city attorney representing Duluth, told the Supreme Court that approval of Proctor's move would erode the ability of local governments to enter into agreements over the future of lands.

"It is undisputed in the record that this property is undeveloped and unpopulated," he argued. "It is neither urban nor suburban in character, nor is there any indication that it is about to be so. Nor is it in the best interest to be annexed."

Assistant Minnesota Attorney General Nathan Hartshorn argued in support of upholding the original administrative law ruling. He said Proctor's annexation by ordinance trumps the agreement between Midway and Duluth.

"Land is deemed by law to be urban or suburban if the conditions in (state statute) are met, and in this case they were," Hartshorn said.

Underscoring apparent ambiguities in state law, justices posed challenging questions to attorneys on both sides.


Justice Barry Anderson noted that Proctor did not sign on to the agreement between Midway and Duluth. He indicated that property owners and municipalities have the right to enter into an annexation agreement and said there appears to be no preference in the law for one form of annexation over another.

Meanwhile, Chief Justice Lorie Gildea said Proctor could have contested the agreement between Midway and Duluth but opted not to. Bringing another action to annex township land, she said, "feels unnecessarily duplicative."

The seven-member court took the case under advisement and is expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.

Case tests new court technology

In presenting his case Wednesday, LaCoursiere made a small piece of Minnesota Supreme Court history.

Traditionally limited to an oral presentation, LaCoursiere became the first attorney to add an electronic visual element. Through PowerPoint slides, he displayed several maps illustrating his argument of Proctor's encroachment into Midway Township.

"They say a picture is worth a thousand words," he told the News Tribune. "It's just been a very, very slow evolution to change from that oral advocacy to a graphical representation, which can be very persuasive if handled well. So it's kind of a neat thing."

Minnesota Judicial Branch spokeswoman Alyssa Siems Roberson said attorneys and court personnel had a test-run of the new technology Tuesday, a day before LaCoursiere would be the first to utilize it before the high court.


Its usage was made possible by a recent renovation of the courtroom, which now includes a large display monitor. Each justice also is equipped with a Microsoft Surface tablet. Other technology, including live streaming of oral arguments, also has been added.

"We're really moving away from paper briefing," LaCoursiere said. "It'll be interesting to see how it develops. I think in 10 years appellate briefing might look very different than it does now."

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or
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