City Line Towing, city of Willmar at odds regarding use of land beneath First Street bridge over Highway 12

May 9—WILLMAR

— A Willmar towing company owner who has spent thousands of dollars to develop and secure a site for an impound lot, part of which would use city property, has been told by the city to remove a fence and remove vehicles that were stored on the city-owned portion of the property.

City Line Towing

owner Jason Butler has said he had permission to install the fence, specifically from Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker, but the city of Willmar disputes that.

Butler addressed the

Willmar City Council

during public comment at its May 1 meeting regarding a certified letter he received from Willmar City Administrator Leslie Valiant demanding that he remove the fence he installed on city-owned property under the First Street bridge over U.S. Highway 12.

The letter dated April 21 demands that he remove cars from the lot by May 5 and remove the fence by May 15. Both have been completed.

Butler has been attempting to obtain permission from the city for use of the land under the bridge since Valiant was hired, first asking her for permission, then approaching city inspectors regarding it, according to Walker. Both entities told him no.

After hitting roadblocks with city staff, Butler approached the City Council during public comment at a meeting in early September 2022 and was told to begin working on a plan with city staff.

Butler began working with Walker following that meeting and, after being assured by Walker in October 2022 that his proposal could be accomplished, he purchased the lot to the east of the bridge — 101 Benson Ave. S.E., on which the former Eid's Refrigeration building is located — for $125,000, according to Butler.

He already owned the 105 Benson Ave. S.E. lot to the east of that parcel, so the purchase allowed him to connect his 124 Benson Ave. S.W. property on the west side of the bridge to the property on the east side of the bridge if he were allowed use of the land under the bridge.

Butler's goal is to improve the property for use as an impound lot, he said. He has secured a $500,000 construction loan for the project. The purpose of the fence is both to secure the site and screen the impound from view.

Due to him constructing the fence before receiving official approval by Willmar City Council, as well as starting to store impounded cars beneath the bridge,

the Willmar City Council in January denied Butler a licensing agreement for the property.

Councilors stated that they felt Butler disrespected the city and would not abide by an agreement.

Butler has adamantly proclaimed that he had permission from city staff, specifically Walker, to install the footings and frame for the fence in October 2022 due to the need to get footings in the ground before it froze.

The certified letter he received states, "Because city staff authorized you to install footings for a fence around the perimeter of the city property in advance of anticipated city council approval, the city will allow additional time to remove the fence and footings from the city property."

"There's more in this letter than there ever was said at the City Council meeting," Butler told the council. "I had permission by him (pointing to Walker) to put up a fence. ... I came here in September, I asked about this, you guys said meet with staff. I met with staff, met with Mr. Walker; Mr. Walker gave us permission to put up the fence before freeze. We did that, but to do that, we had to take down our fence, we had to order a $30,000 fence, then we had to buy a $125,000 piece of property. So, I've got $200,000 wrapped up into this."

In an interview with the West Central Tribune on April 26, Butler said that Walker knew that a contractor was coming to install the tin paneling on the fence on Dec. 15, 2022.

A potential easement agreement to gain access to use the land did not appear on a City Council agenda until Dec. 19, 2022, when the council approved city staff moving forward with drafting an easement agreement.

Walker stated at that meeting that Butler had offered to pay for the survey to note the easement and get it recorded, as well as any associated legal fees.

It was also noted that the easement would allow for the connection of Butler's properties to accommodate $500,000 in planned improvements, that he would install bollards to protect bridge pilings and carry liability insurance for the bridge.

Everything came to a screeching halt Jan. 9, 2023, when the Willmar City Council denied what City Attorney Robert Scott noted was a hurriedly drafted licensing agreement for the property, rather than the easement proposed at the December meeting.

It was explained by Walker that an easement is a one-time agreement that travels with the land, but a licensing agreement is something for which fees can be charged and can be addressed yearly. The licensing fee in the agreement was $20,000 annually.

It is unclear how the amount of the licensing fee was determined. When asked about it after the Jan. 9 City Council meeting, Walker stated it was not due to staff recommendation.

Walker was also asked in January about Butler stating he had permission by Walker to use the property.

"If he just would have waited, we wouldn't be here," Walker told the West Central Tribune. "All these things happened. All these things considered, right, (if) Butler didn't put that tin up, I think he gets to fence the property. ... When I tell you that we can take care of something, we can probably do this, that doesn't mean go break ground, you know?"

At the May 1 City Council meeting, Butler also told the council that Valiant has told him he can no longer access the overhead doors on the west side of the Eid's building. The side of the building is the property line between the Eid's Refrigeration lot and the city-owned land, according to Butler.

"So here I've got a building I can't even access. Every door is on the west side," Butler told the council.

The West Central Tribune contacted Tim Hanson, the former owner of the Eid's Refrigeration building, to ask what kind of an agreement there was between the Hansons and the city regarding access to the building. Hanson's father purchased the property in 1965, Hanson began working there in 1980 and purchased it from his father in 2005.

"As far as I can remember, we've always had access on the west side of the building and out the doors," he said, noting that the Hansons constructed the northern, tin portion of the building with an overhead door in 1974 or 1975.

When the new First Street bridge was being designed and constructed in the early 1990s, the Hansons worked with the designers due to the fact that the bridge would be wider than the previous bridge and right on top of their property, according to Hanson.

"They had put pilings right outside of one of the overhead doors," Hanson said. "We brought it to their attention and we had meetings with them on it. ... They ended up moving the piling on it, probably about 10 feet or so, to accommodate access to the one door."

Hanson also explained that the land under the bridge was a one-way First Street before the U.S. Highway 12 bypass was constructed (1976) and it was vacated due to the bypass.

"I don't know when or what time there was an easement put on, if there was an easement put on. I believe there's gotta be something on there, but I can't tell you if there is or if there's not," Hanson said. "But we've never had one problem in the time that we owned the business with the city of Willmar, gaining access on the west side of the building. Myself, a lifelong resident of Willmar, being here 64 years, now all of a sudden this gets to be a problem for a new owner of the building."

During conversations in January, the West Central Tribune also asked Walker about any easements for the property that would allow access to the Eid's building.

"This happened so long ago before they were keeping records, we literally have no idea," Walker said. "... That's how things were done ... (An easement) totally could be there."

The letter received by Butler states that the city has not been able to locate any record of easements for the city-owned property under the bridge in its own records, through the Minnesota Department of Transportation or in Kandiyohi County Recorder's Office records.

The letter also states that the city disputes Butler's characterization of his conversations with Walker.

"While Director Walker agreed to work with you on your request to make use of the city property and extended you the courtesy of allowing you to install footings for a fence prior to the ground freezing in late 2022, Director Walker and every other staff member you communicated with were clear with you that the Willmar City Council would have to approve your request to use the city property for your company's business purposes."

When City Line Towing owner Jason Butler spoke at the May 1 council meeting, he implied that he is being stopped from having access to the land under the First Street bridge for personal reasons between himself and City Administrator Leslie Valiant.

He stated these issues stem back to a time when he was trying to acquire city-owned property in Spicer to build a garage to store a few tow trucks. Valiant was the city administrator in Spicer at that time.

"I find this personal, because me and Ms. Valiant have a relationship where we did this exact same dance in Spicer — to the tee, minus the bridge. The exact same dance, I beat her there and I'm going to do this again," Butler said during the meeting.

When asked about this after the meeting, Butler told the Tribune that Valiant never allowed his request to get any further than her and it never made it before the Spicer Planning and Zoning Commission.

He also said that when he was working with Willmar Planning and Development Director Justice Walker to develop an agreement for use of the land under the First Street bridge that Walker told Butler that "somebody upstairs" doesn't like him and there were "roadblocks" from someone up above.

After Valiant was no longer the city administrator in Spicer, Butler said he was able to get his request heard by the Planning and Zoning Commission and worked out a deal with the city to purchase the lot that he wanted.

Spicer Planning and Zoning Commission minutes for

Aug. 18, 2021,

and

Sept. 15, 2021,

and Spicer City Council minutes from

Sept. 21, 2021,

and

Nov. 16, 2021,

confirm that Butler was able to work out a deal with the city of Spicer after Valiant was no longer the administrator there.

The West Central Tribune reached out to Valiant on May 2 asking several questions related to Butler's request to use the land under the bridge, as well as his accusations against Valiant.

She declined to respond. "Due to threats of litigation from Jason Butler I am unable to respond to any of your questions," she wrote in an email.

Among the questions the Tribune tried to have answered was how the city established the $20,000-per-year licensing fee that the city included in the licensing agreement for Butler to use the city property — which ultimately was not approved — if it was not a staff recommendation.

She was also asked why it took from September, when he first approached the council, until December for Butler's request to be placed on the City Council agenda, especially in light of Butler's contention that Walker knew the fence installers were coming the week prior to that December council meeting.

In conversations with the West Central Tribune, Walker has implied that it was due to the fact that the city was looking for a way to say "no" to Butler without it coming from the city.

Another question that the Tribune could not get answered by Valiant was why the city would require Butler to place bollards around the bridge pilings on the city-owned land when there are no bollards protecting the bridge pilings on U.S. Highway 12 and Becker Avenue, none in the BNSF Railway yard, and Butler is not required to place bollards around the piling located on his property on the west side of the bridge.

Finally, Valiant was asked about an April 17 closed session of Willmar City Council when it discussed purchasing the Eid's building property from Butler. When he was asked about it, Butler said the city was considering purchasing the property to construct a footbridge adjacent to the First Street bridge.