may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1994).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
Lac Qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed District,
Filed November 12, 1996
Lac Qui Parle County District Court
File No. C894233
Stephen Torvik, Nelson Oyen Torvik P.L.L.P., 221 North First Street, Post Office Box 656, Montevideo, MN 56265 (for Respondent)
David C. McLaughlin, Fluegel, Helseth, McLaughlin, Anderson & Brutlag, Chartered, 212 2nd Street NW, Ortonville, MN 56278 (for Appellant)
Considered and decided by Willis, Presiding Judge, Lansing, Judge, and Kalitowski, Judge.
We review a district court decision finding that a landowner constructed and improved a drainage ditch without the necessary permit. The record supports the district court's decision, and the court acted within its discretion by requiring restoration of the property and attorneys' fees, remedies specifically allowed under the watershed district statutes. We affirm.
An adjacent landowner, allegedly affected by the increased water flow, photographed the ditch and complained to a member of the watershed district board. The watershed district contacted Wollschlager, requesting him to stop ditching and to apply for a permit.
Wollschlager did not apply for or obtain a permit, and he was charged with violating Minn. Stat. § 103D.545, subd. 1 (1992); cf. Minn. Stat. § 103E.081, subd. 1 (1992) (prohibiting unauthorized drain outletting into drainage system). Wollschlager entered an Alford plea to the misdemeanor charge and in July 1993 was ordered to pay a $350 fine. See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 91 S. Ct. 160 (1970). The judgment did not address restoration of the property.
Following the criminal proceedings, the watershed district requested that Wollschlager restore his property to its preditch condition. Wollschlager refused, and in June 1994 the watershed district brought this civil action requesting restoration of the property and attorneys' fees and costs under Minn. Stat. § 103D.545, subds. 2, 3 (1992).
The September 1995 trial consisted of testimony from Wollschlager's neighbors and members of the watershed district board. The court also received photographic evidence of the ditch. After concluding that Wollschlager had constructed and improved a ditch without the required permit, the district court ordered restoration of the property and payment of $5489.90 in fees and costs. This appeal followed.
A party bringing a claim of estoppel against a governmental entity bears a heavy burden of proof. Ridgewood Dev. Co. v. State, 294 N.W.2d 288, 292 (Minn. 1980). Before we will examine the equities of the circumstances surrounding the case, the party seeking estoppel must first show wrongful conduct on the part of the government. Id. at 293. Wollschlager asserts the watershed board's conduct was wrongful in three respects.
First, Wollschlager states that the watershed board met "illegally" when it decided to pursue a civil complaint against him and that the district court should have punished the board for this meeting by invalidating its actions. The district court did not find that the board violated the open meeting law. But even a violation of the open meeting law will not invalidate action taken at the meeting. In re Petitions of D & A Truck Line, 524 N.W.2d 1, 6 (Minn. App. 1994). Rather, Minnesota's "open meeting law" provides for the imposition of a civil penalty for intentional violations of the law. Minn. Stat. § 471.705, subd. 2 (1992).
Second, the board's customary practice of obtaining approval from downstream landowners for drainage permits is not inequitable or wrongful. This policy acknowledges the long-followed common law rule that surface waters cannot be unreasonably directed onto neighboring property. See, e.g., Sheehan v. Flynn, 59 Minn. 436, 449, 61 N.W. 462, 466 (1894). Wollschlager argues that, because the local rules fail to state this requirement explicitly, the board's procedures are not "in compliance with the law or procedures" and that as a consequence the board should not have been granted relief. The watershed district statute provides for an appeal from permit decisions. Minn. Stat. § 103D.537 (1992). If Wollschlager had applied for and was denied a permit because he failed to obtain the permission of his neighbors, he could appeal the decision and use the appeal process to demonstrate that permission was improperly withheld.
Third, the doctrine of laches does not bar relief. The watershed district contacted Wollschlager in May 1994, ten months after his criminal conviction, asking him to voluntarily restore his property. When he refused, the civil complaint followed. The watershed district diligently asserted its rights, and Wollschlager offered no evidence that he was prejudiced by the short delay between his criminal conviction and the watershed district's decision to file a civil complaint. Cf. Wheeler v. City of Wayzata, 533 N.W.2d 405, 409 (Minn. 1995) (stating that demonstration of prejudice is significant in determining whether doctrine of laches should apply).
Because the record contains no evidence of unconscionable conduct by the watershed district or evidence of an unconscionable result warranting denial or reversal of the relief granted, we conclude that the district court did not err in granting the watershed district the equitable relief permitted under the statute. Cf. Nadeau v. County of Ramsey, 277 N.W.2d 520, 524 (Minn. 1979) (stating that district court's grant of equitable relief will not be reversed absent a clear abuse of discretion).
We disagree with Wollschlager's argument that the district court's order contains no discernible standards for compliance. The court has ordered the ditch filled so that it is roughly level with the surrounding land. The court's failure to provide Wollschlager with precise elevations does not make the order ambiguous. The district court concluded, and we agree, that mechanical precision is not necessary to restore the land to its previous condition. To mitigate Wollschlager's fear that he will not know if he is in compliance with the order, the district court provided that he and the watershed district could employ a neutral third party. Finally, nothing in the court's order prohibits Wollschlager from hiring a professional land surveyor to determine if the filled ditch is level.