STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
In the Matter of the
Petition for the Improvement
of Murray County Ditch No. 34.
Filed July 13, 1999
Murray County District Court
File No. C196185
Jeffry C. Braegelmann, Gislason, Dosland, Hunter & Malecki, P.L.L.P., 2700 South Broadway, P.O. Box 458, New Ulm, MN 56073-0458 (for appellants)
Leland O. Bush, 225 North Tyler Street, P.O. Box 449, Tyler, MN 56178 (for respondents)
Considered and decided by Lansing, Presiding Judge, Crippen, Judge, and Kalitowski, Judge.
Contending that the cost of a ditch improvement would exceed its benefits, appellants challenge a trial court order dismissing their appeal from the decision of the drainage authority. Finding no merit in appellants’ analysis of cost and benefits of the project, we affirm.
Murray County Ditch No. 34, essentially a main tile line with numerous laterals, was constructed over 80 years ago. The main tile line is currently in a poor state of repair and the engineering report indicates that the cost of repair is $290,279. Instead of seeking repair, respondents, a group of local landowners, sought to restore and improve the ditch by replacing the main tile line with an open ditch at a cost the project engineer estimated to be $593,565.
The Murray County Board of Commissioners, acting as the drainage authority, appointed project viewers to "redetermine" the benefits of the present system if in workable condition. The viewers apportioned $458,584 restoration benefits for all parcels in the system, approximately 175 pieces of land, both private parcels and public roadways. The viewers also determined that the proposed open ditch would enhance the benefits of the system by $508,766. These "improvement" benefits were also apportioned amongst private parcels and public roadways. Most, but not all, parcels benefited from both the existing system and the open ditch improvement, and in the viewers’ report, benefits were separately determined for each parcel in different proportions for the existing system and the improvement.
Consistent with instructions from the project engineer or county board, the viewers assessed the estimated $593,565 cost of the project in two parts. The amount necessary to repair the system, $290,279, was allocated as repair costs and assessed according to benefits determined for the original system as repaired. The additional cost for constructing an open ditch, $303,286, considered the part of the project constituting an improvement of the system, was assessed according to benefits determined for the improvement. In sum, $290,279 was assessed against benefits of $458,584, and $303,286, the additional cost to achieve the enhanced value of the system, was assessed against benefits of $508,766.
Appellants, other landowners who stand to be assessed for the cost of the improvement, appealed to the trial court, contending, inter alia, that the project must be dismissed because the benefits of the proposed drainage project are less than the total costs. Appellants reason that the "project cost" of $593,565 must be compared with the improvement benefits of $508,766; the latter figure, they suggest, represents total value of the project, not merely the enhancement of value associated with the use of an open ditch—as was said by the ditch authority. Similarly, appellants contend that the cost could not be reduced, for a separate assessment, by the part attributable to the repair of the system, $290,279.
The trial court, rejecting appellants’ contentions, dismissed the appeal, concluding that, by statute, the cost of the project attributable to repair need not be factored into the equation when balancing the cost of the improvement against the benefit of the improvement.
The trial court did not directly address the benefits of the project, but found that the county board had acted on the viewers’ report, with its two determinations of benefits, and concluded that both the repair costs and the additional improvement costs were "properly assessed." In its findings and trial memorandum, the trial court concluded that the appellants had failed to carry their burden of producing any evidence showing error in the county board’s project order.
1. Standard of Review
Under Minn. Stat. § 103E.095, subd. 1 (1998), a party may appeal an order establishing a drainage project to the district court. Although under Minn. Stat. § 103E.095, subd. 2 (1998), the findings made by the county board are prima facie evidence of the matters stated in the findings, and the board’s order is prima facie reasonable, appeals to the district court are de novo. Schwermann v. Reinhart, 296 Minn. 340, 344-45, 210 N.W.2d 33, 36 (1973) (citation omitted).
Appellate courts have not previously determined the standard of review they will employ in reviewing the trial court dismissal of a ditch proceedings appeal. But for purposes of reviewing the trial court in other matters, the supreme court has recognized an independent standard of review. See Northwestern College v. City of Arden Hills, 281 N.W.2d 865, 868 (Minn. 1979) (holding that an appellate court makes a new examination of a city’s action in zoning disputes, independent of the findings and conclusions of the district court). And the construction of a statute is clearly a question of law and thus reviewable de novo. Hibbing Educ. Ass’n v. Public Employment Relations Bd., 369 N.W.2d 527, 529 (Minn. 1985).
2. Dual Assessment of Costs
Minn. Stat. § 103E.215 (1998) governs improvements, specifically including construction of open ditches "to reline or replace tile." Id. at subd. 2. Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 6, determines the process for allocating cost when a separable portion of the drainage system needs improvement, providing that the "repair portion" of the improvement be "assessed against all property benefited by the entire drainage system," and "the balance of the cost of the improvement * * * in addition to the repair assessment" be assessed against the property "benefited by the improvement." Id.
Although the benefits solely attributable to the enhancement of the system might often exist for only some owners in a system, in this case they were found to exist for all owners—although, appropriately, not in the same proportion of benefit for each owner as found regarding benefits in restoring the original system. All owners in this case were assessed something for the enhancement—in the fashion anticipated by the statute, "in addition to" the assessment for the repair portion of the project.
The separate assessment process of Minn. Stat. § 103E.215 subd. 6 is applicable whenever the existing drainage system needs repair and "the petition for the improvement is for a separable part only of the existing drainage system." Id. Appellants do not dispute the impact of subdivision 6, but they contend that an improvement deals with a separable part of the existing drainage system only when it deals with a part of the system that functions independently of the rest of the system. Appellants’ argument suggests language in subdivision 6 that does not exist. See Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (1998) (providing that "[w]hen the words of a law in their application to an existing situation are clear and free from all ambiguity, the letter of the law shall not be disregarded under the pretext of pursuing the spirit").
The county board found that the improvement was for a separable part of the system because the improvement involved reconstruction of defined portions of the main line. Moreover, the county board determined that the improvement of these defined sections affected parcels in different proportions than did mere repair of the system. These findings are premised on determinations by the viewers, and appellants have not challenged these factual determinations. On these findings, we must affirm the trial court’s conclusions that the county board had "adequately described a separable portion of the existing drainage system," had "followed the statute closely," and had "properly assessed" the costs of the project.
We conclude that the trial court correctly approved application of subdivision 6 to this project because the project involves distinct parts of the system and the improvement affects parcels of land differently than would just a repair of the system. No language in Minn. Stat. § 103E.215 suggests that a portion of a drainage system identified for an improvement is not separable, or that subdivision 6 is not applicable, merely because that portion of the system interrelates with other portions of the system. Moreover, it is evident that Minn. Stat. § 103E.215 provides an assessment formula that is fairly applied in cases that include the kinds of circumstances faced by the county board in this case—where an improvement affects parcels in the system differently than would mere repair of the system.
Contrary to appellants’ argument, both the restoration and improvement confer benefits—according to critical findings that we must accept. In these circumstances, even in the absence of subdivision 6, with its specific prescription of a dual assessment in such cases, fair appraisal standards would evidently require separately assessing repair costs and improvement costs—each carrying with it separate costs and separate benefits.
We recognize that the improvement is being made to the system without specifically incurring the expenses associated with repairing and installing the tile—$290,279. But this takes nothing away from the fact that the improvement substitutes for the necessary repair. We conclude that, under Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 6, a drainage authority may take into account the amount repairs would cost if they were made.
Appellants contend that even if costs are assessed separately, the total benefits of the project do not exceed $508,766. Appellants reason that the viewer-determined ditch restoration benefit, $458,584, is not a benefit of the present project and can be overlooked because Minn. Stat. § 103E.705, subd. 1 (1998) mandates that the drainage authority keep the present system in functioning condition, independent of the proposed project. On the basis of evidence in the record, there is no merit in this artificial recognition of past improvements or to any other rationale for appellants’ comparison of the cost of the project with only part of its benefits. Again, the legal integrity of county board findings of fact is the critical consideration in deciding this case. The record contains no evidence to contradict the factual determination of the ditch authority that the improvement project serves both to restore the system to a functioning state, producing value of $458,584, and to enhance the value of the system, producing additional value of $508,766.
Although appellant correctly contends that the redetermined benefits for the existing system, $458,584, "assume" that the system is already repaired and functioning, that assumption takes nothing away from the reality that the system is not presently functioning as it should and as it will be if the improvement is made. The statutory obligation of the drainage authority to keep the system in good repair does not mean that the $458,584 is not a benefit of the proposed project.
Affirmed. In the project order, the county board specifically found that "the estimated benefits are greater than the total estimated costs including damages, both as to the Redetermination of Benefits and as to the Improvement Project."