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Group files lawsuit to stop new sewer system

Anti-sewer demonstrators gathered together Tuesday outside the Douglas County Courthouse following a district court hearing over a lawsuit filed recently by county residents against the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District.

Four Douglas County residents have filed a lawsuit against the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District, alleging CLRSD officials violated the legislation that initially created the district, operating for years without a valid comprehensive plan.

Such a plan must be completed, they say, before the district's board can act on any decisions, such as approving a multimillion-dollar sewer system, and without one CLRSD has no jurisdiction over any community claimed within its boundaries.

As a result, plaintiffs asked District Court Judge David Battey on Tuesday to issue an injunction "enjoining the CLRSD from taking any further action on any proposed sewer improvement projects" until the sanitary district approves a legal comprehensive plan.

"We're trying to make sure the CLRSD [board] does what they are supposed to do," said Jason Lina, attorney for the plaintiffs. "The [State] Legislature said what they're supposed to do, and we're trying to record those things."

The plaintiffs in the case are Brandon Township residents Beau and Mary Saffel, and Keith and Kathryn Baldwin, who are Miltona Township residents and members of the anti-sewer group the Citizens League for Environmental and Economic Responsibility (CLEER).

Formed by legislative action in 2003, CLRSD operated for five years without a proper comprehensive plan, Lina said, before adopting an insufficient one on July 3, 2008.

According to the civil complaint filed in November against CLRSD, the plan accepted in July was based on a two-page feasibility report and lacked multiple basic legal requirements, including:

•A metes and bounds description.

•A designated time period for which the plan is applicable.

•An account for preservation and best use of area land and water resources.

•The impact a central sewer system would have on present and future land use.

•A long-range capital improvements program.

"If you look at what the enabling legislation requires [CLRSD] to do for a comprehensive plan," Lina said, "and then look at what was adopted on July 3, 2008, I don't know how you can make a straight-faced argument that the resolution complies with comprehensive plan as required [by the legislation]."

Paul Reuvers, attorney for CLRSD, said the district has in fact complied with its statutory requirements, and continues to do so.

"We believe [the plaintiffs'] motion to be procedurally defective right out of the gate," Reuvers told the court Tuesday.

The comprehensive plan passed by CLRSD officials last July met the standards set by the legislation that created the district, Reuvers said, even though it might have been technically deficient by not including all the required information in one document.

The Minnesota Supreme Court has said in previous judgements that technical defects alone cannot be used as a basis to overturn governmental action, Reuvers said.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs' motion requiring CLRSD to adopt a proper comprehensive plan is moot, he said, because the district has already reorganized its plan from July into a single document that meets all legal requirements for a comprehensive plan.

Pat Conroy, CLRSD general manager, said the revised plan was published December 11 on the district's Web site.

A copy of the plan is on file at the Douglas County Library, and individual copies can be purchased from Insty-Prints at 1300 Broadway in Alexandria.

A public hearing on the new proposed comprehensive plan is scheduled for 9 a.m. on January 31 at Leaf Valley Town Hall, after which the CLRSD board plans to vote on the plan during its monthly meeting February 5, also at Leaf Valley Town Hall.

Arguing before the court, Reuvers also asked Judge Battey to deny the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary injunction halting the proposed sewer project, which CLRSD has already placed on hold while it waits to see if federal grant money will appear from a talked-about possible second stimulus package once President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated.

An injunction, Reuvers argued, would bar CLRSD from being able to compete for those funds, and could even jeopardize funding already secured for the project.

"That stops us in our tracks," he said. "There is going to be real harm to the district if that's done."

Lina disagreed, saying provisions in the legislation that created CLRSD allow for the board to advertise for bids on a proposed project even while still conducting the public comment process for its pending comprehensive plan.

Keith Baldwin, a plaintiff and CLEER representative, said in the end it doesn't matter if the district fixes its comprehensive plan, or gets federal grant money.

"Our intent is to shut CLRSD down," he said.

Judge Battey has up to 90 days to issue a decision on the case.