The outcome of an annexation lawsuit between the town of Troy and the city of River Falls could hinge on one word — "near."
Attorneys on both sides of the Mann Valley case last week argued over the interpretation of the word, relative to its use in an obscure Wisconsin law that governs certain annexations.
"That is the ultimate decision your honor would make," town of Troy attorney Rory O'Sullivan told St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman at an Oct. 31 pretrial hearing.
The case, involving the town's grievance over River Falls' annexation of property slated for corporate development, was set for a Nov. 20 trial before Judge Michael Waterman. The judge had already ruled on two key questions in the case, jettisoning one and deciding the other was to be sorted out at trial.
However, Waterman said at the hearing that he would take another look at a renewed motion from the city that would throw out the town's lawsuit. The motion calls for summary judgment in the case, a legal move that allows judges to declare a prevailing side in lawsuits without taking the matter to trial.
In this case, the outstanding question is the parcel's nearness to the city — just over 1,600 feet. The fact that the land isn't directly adjoined isn't an issue. State statute allows for noncontiguous parcels to be annexed, provided they are "near" the city forcing the action.
Ambiguity in the term led Waterman to conclude in June that the question must be resolved at trial, where he said "perspective, context and the unique facts" can provide more evidence than a simple map presentation.
The issue appeared set for trial until Oct. 25 when the city's attorney renewed the motion for summary judgment. City attorney Richard Yde wrote in a brief to the court that the burden of proof in such a case falls on the town. He said Town Chairman Dan Pearson relied on the town's "own 'say-so'" — a map — in bringing the issue forward.
"The town's own testimony demonstrates that the town cannot meet even a minimal burden of proof, let alone overcome the presumption of validity to which the ordinance is entitled," Yde wrote in his brief seeking to dismiss the case.
Yde voiced the same argument before Waterman at the hearing.
"He's got a point," the judge said.
The motion drew opposition from the town's attorney, O'Sullivan, who argued in court Oct. 31 that the city's motion came too late in the process of an issue he argued Waterman had already decided.
"The town is simply asking the court to respect its own decision of June 6, 2017, and to have the trial to settle this factual dispute," O'Sullivan wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to the judge.
The lawsuit centers on River Falls' annexation of a 292-acre parcel it owns in the town of Troy. A portion of the property has since become home to the Land O'Lakes-owned Winfield Solutions.
But the legal action likely is delaying the inevitable: The city and the River Falls School District have already reached a memorandum of understanding calling for the city to annex a strip of district-owned land that would bridge River Falls with the property in question.
The River Falls School Board decided at its Sept. 25 meeting that it would, however, put the action on hold pending the lawsuit's outcome in court.
But according to meeting minutes, Superintendent Jamie Benson made clear the annexation of district land will happen — regardless of Waterman's decision "because it's in the best interest of the school district."
"Benson wanted to be clear the district will be annexing and there should be no accusations of interfering with the judge's decision or affecting any future case law with this," the meeting minutes state.
O'Sullivan acknowledged the district's likely action, but said Troy's lawsuit is the only remedy to an annexation he views as illegal.
"There's no alternate dispute resolution process," he said.
What's more, O'Sullivan said other local governmental units from around Wisconsin may be watching to see what happens with the case. He said the lawsuit is the first of its kind in the state that could determine "nearness" in non-contiguous annexation cases.
"These set of circumstances have never come up before," he said.