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A long and winding road: Explaining the Hornet Street dispute in Kanabec County

Hornet Street is, fundamentally, a half-mile stretch of dead-end gravel road off County Road 3 in Hillman Township. It’s been there for over a century, first established in 1904.

But the north quarter-mile of the street has proven to be a long and winding road for residents Andy and Renee Crisman, who have been locked in a multi-year dispute with the township over its maintenance.

On Tuesday, the Kanabec County Board of Commissioners voted to deny a petition the Crismans filed on March 7, seeking a declaration of Hornet Street as an impassable road.

Board chair Rickey Mattson explained that the commissioners lack the legal authority or jurisdiction to act on the petition as presented by the family.

"The Court of Appeals ruled that a piece of ground in dispute is no longer a town road," Mattson said. "Once something is no longer public property, or subject to public interest, the public interest is gone and can't simply come back because a later group of officials or electors wish the prior action had been taken."

The Crisman family expressed disappointment with the board’s decision in a press release, stating: “There is nothing to gain by denying us access to our own home, but that is what both Hillman Township and now Kanabec County have done to their own people they are supposed to serve.”

As the adopted resolution stands as the latest roadblock in the Crismans’ efforts to secure Hornet Street maintenance, here’s a look at how the dispute has reached this point.

How it started

According to court records, the Crismans purchased their property on the northern end of Hillman Street in 2013. Two neighboring properties are within the first, southern quarter-mile of the gravel road.

The family moved to reside year-round at the property in 2017, using a tractor to plow snow and access their property upon discovering that the township only maintained the southern half of Hornet Street.

The Crismans brought that concern to the 2017 annual Hillman Township Board meeting in the form of a petition seeking maintenance. The township supervisors said the township hadn’t maintained that stretch of Hornet Street in 25 years, and according to court records, denied the petition.

The family was told after the meeting they could improve the gravel road themselves, and, in 2019, that’s just what they did by adding gravel, grading, and a school bus turnaround.

Those efforts were obstructed by neighbor and former township supervisor Danny Schmoll, who, according to court records, put a four-foot post in the road, which “hampered” school bus access. (Schmoll later testified that he didn’t.)

It was that November when, in a letter to the township board, the Crismans contended that the township had maintained the north section of Hornet Street in the last 25 years.

A brief aside into Minnesota law: A township road that has not been maintained in more than 25 years is deemed abandoned.

After the board of supervisors designated that stretch as a minimum-maintenance road, the Crismans sued the township on January 3, 2020.

Court action

A district court bench trial was held in February of 2021. That June, the court reached the conclusion that the Crismans failed to establish that the township had maintained the northern quarter-mile of Hornet Street in the last 25 years and denied relief.

However, according to court documents, the district court amended its decision in November following a hearing, determining that Hillman Township has a duty to maintain all of Hornet Street.

In the ruling by District Judge Stoney Hiljus, the township’s refusal to maintain the entirety of the road was called “unreasonable and absurd,” and that the Crismans were being left “stranded while what exists of Hornet Street erodes away.”

In a press release sent after the ruling, Andy Crisman wrote: “We just wish the board would bring peace to this situation, now that they have been given a path to do so.”

The township board appealed the district court’s decision.

At a March township meeting, voters passed a resolution in support of the Crismans, seeking the board to resume maintenance and drop the appeal. The supervisors refused to act on the resolution, but offered up to $15,000 to build a driveway from the Crismans' home to an extension of 297th venue, according to a March 2022 Star Tribune story.

In August, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s decision, stating that “the district court erred by requiring the township to maintain the northern portion of Hornet Street.”

The Crismans petitioned the state Supreme Court in September to review the appellate court’s overturning, but were denied.

While the Kanabec County board’s decision to deny the petition seeking Hornet Street to be declared as impassable represents the latest obstacle in the road dispute, Renee and Andy Crisman said in an email that “it’s not the end of the road for us.”

“We are in process to find the next best thing to do moving forward,” they wrote.

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