Oct. 3—About 40 people came to speak, Craig Smith recalls, and they were all upset about the same thing: Belgrade Township's decision to stop paying for maintenance of the Smith Spillway.
Four months prior to the well-attended annual meeting in August, three of the board's five supervisors voted to pass a motion ending the township's work on the spillway, a mile-long agricultural road in lower North Mankato.
From April onward, supervisors said, the bill for any maintenance would be footed by the dozen landowners who use it.
But Smith, one of the supervisors to oppose the motion and a farmer who depends on the spillway road, said for more than 100 years it has existed to carry farm equipment and trucks to hundreds of acres of land bordering the Minnesota River.
Never before have landowners been forced to pay to repair it, he said.
But landowners and their supporters' grievances faced a technicality on which the board based its decision.
During the Township Board's April monthly meeting, Smith told his peers he wanted to see repairs to the Smith Spillway done soon. Mankato engineering firm Bolton & Menk had visited the road in 2019 to consider solutions to impasses made by pooling water, eventually billing the township $4,700 for its evaluation and recommendations.
Mary Milbrath, who ceded her role as board chair this year but is still a supervisor, said every map she consulted showed the road is a "township cartway," meeting minutes show. She stated correctly that townships generally do not pay for work on cartways; they are public roads that adjacent landowners are supposed to privately maintain.
The board had never formally approved work on the spillway, she continued, implying it would happen without proper certification.
Citing the safety concern of working in a flooded area and the township's inability to afford regular maintenance, she made a motion to discontinue all work by the township and shift the onus to landowners.
With the support of supervisors Cheryl Michels and Gerri Krueger, who began serving on the board in January 2019 and January 2021, respectively, the motion passed. Former supervisor Andy Goettlicher was opposed.
Smith voted to oppose, despite Milbrath's urging that he abstain because of a conflict of interest. He represents the landowners down by the road, he reasoned, and they deserve his vote.
He said he was shell-shocked by the motion.
"No one told me, no one informed me," he said. "It was a complete blindside. And I think that was on purpose."
Landowners lead backlash
A prominent landowner affected by the decision is Glenette Johnson, a 98-year-old World War II veteran who can attest to the road's long history. It is her enduring role in the community around Judson Bottom that drew the small crowd to the meeting to express their concern.
Johnson said when her father, who died in the 1940s, farmed the family's land, it was a maintained road. Now approaching a century on the planet, she wonders why the township has suddenly changed its tune.
Though she struggles to walk, Johnson was at the meeting to hear how the supervisors would respond.
"I thought they were pretty rude, the people that were up there," Johnson told The Free Press this week while seated in her home, her walker near her chair. "They didn't give us any answers at all. They just beat around the bush."
Those present at the meeting made a motion to leave the situation as they say it has been for years. The supervisors were not persuaded.
Johnson noted the road must be 150 years old. She pays taxes on her land, she said — county records show she has paid $5,420 in property taxes since 2013 on her 56 acres south of Judson Bottom.
She pays Smith to farm corn and soybeans while also arranging for lumber to be cut.
She thinks that if the road's treatment changes, it will cut into the money her land produces.
"All we're asking for is to maintain it like they always have," Johnson said. "We've got farm fields down there, we can't get at 'em unless the road is maintained.
"I don't know why they're picking on us down here," she added.
When Smith, 62, farmed the land in the 1980s, he said the mile-long road went down the same hill leading away from Judson Bottom and then over a culvert to avoid sitting water.
In the mid-1990s, however, he returned from a trip to find the culvert had been removed. In its place was a concrete pad the township had paid to install.
The pad chronically floods to a point where it is impassable with even small trucks and needs to be treated a few times a year. It has been the primary maintenance expense on a road that requires little.
Smith said no one had mentioned it to him, although he was known to be a primary user of the road.
"We were out there for about a week, came back and that damn thing was in there. I said what's going on? What's this thing in there?" he said of the concrete pad.
"And they said, 'Oh this'll be good, this'll be good. We can clean it out easy, and we'll clean it out for you. Just call us up when it needs to be cleaned out.'"
And the township has cleaned out the area regularly when Smith has asked, he said, often without a formal process to authorize the work. He said Milbrath seized on this point, allegedly telling him to "prove it" when he would speak of past repairs.
Driving on the road Thursday, Smith's large 1967 grain truck hummed loudly as it encountered the flooded pad. Murky brown water rushed away from the deeply treaded tires as the truck passed through, its cab sometimes rattling.
"Sometimes you'll lose the headlights going through there," he said of trips with his truck through the deep water.
Several people have gotten stuck in the water during wetter years, Smith said. While the road is hardly used most of the year, during planting and harvesting, it is busy with grain trucks and tractors.
Just beyond the flooded spot, the road evens out, though it's overgrown. Gravel riprap and rocks brought throughout the years make for many jarring bumps.
But on either side is corn he farms, which in a week or two he plans to harvest. It's where he makes his living — as long as he can drive his grain trucks through.
Given the township's decision, however, the road will soon be swallowed by the land unless Smith and adjacent landowners pay to maintain it.
"There's gonna be a lot of fighting before that happens," he said.
"There's a lot of crop down here. There's gonna be, I imagine, 85,000 bushels that's gotta come out of here. There's a lot of hauling. There's 100 truckloads coming out of here."
Michels, who became board chair in January, would not comment when reached twice by phone Wednesday. She did not respond to a call or voicemail left the next day, nor did she reply to an email.
Meeting minutes show she favored the motion because "the spillway is in a waterway that floods and is under water regularly."
Milbrath and Krueger did not respond to repeated calls, voicemails and emails. Joan Untiedt, who recently became the township clerk, said Milbrath was on vacation and she was unaware when the supervisor would return.
History sheds light
Two past township supervisors spoke in opposition to the decision at the August meeting.
One, 93-year-old Loren Lindsay, told The Free Press he served 35 total years on the board, ending in 2015. Lindsay told supervisors in August how he had personally hauled gravel down to the spillway using the township truck and trimmed obstructing trees. He installed a culvert to make passage through wet areas easier.
Asked if the current board acted unfairly, he said yes. The road and its maintenance should be left as they are, he said.
"The ones that do the farming have to access it, and that's the only way to access it on that particular road," Lindsay said. "They can't get to it any other way, so it's important that it stays open."
A similar issue arose in late 2019, meeting minutes show, when two local landowners requested maintenance of their regularly flooded road along Highway 169.
The owners believed the road was designated as minimum-maintenance, meaning Belgrade Township would pay for repairs, because of a sign the township had installed. But Milbrath, who joined the board alongside Smith in 2017, discovered in this case, too, that the road in question was officially designated a township cartway.
By May of last year, Milbrath and Michels, along with a former supervisor, passed a motion to remove the sign and turn over maintenance of the road to the landowners, who in this case preferred that outcome.
Smith and Goettlicher were opposed, a result identical to the vote on the Smith Spillway this April. Both men worried about setting a bad precedent.
Goettlicher said his reasoning for his vote in April was to maintain the stance he had taken about the spillway near Highway 169. (After joining the board in January 2020, he resigned this July for reasons he said are related to his full-time job.)
Belgrade Township appears to have designated roads and cartways in 1989, according to a resolution filed at the Nicollet County Recorder's Office. The resolution listed each road — the Smith Spillway is called T-130 and is categorized as a cartway — and created a map of the township.
It's unclear if Milbrath or other supervisors obtained a more recent or older map, though there is no record of one at the Recorder's Office.
Though he could only speak generally and doesn't know the specific details of the Smith Spillway, Steve Fenske, general counsel for the Minnesota Association of Townships, said cartways are public roads carved to provide access to landlocked property.
Maintenance should be done by adjacent landowners, but the cartway statute authorizes towns to do work on cartways if they make special findings that dictate a public need.
"It's the exception, not the rule," he said, explaining that work should be project-based and not regularly done. "That doesn't mean it's theirs to maintain forever. It's not: 'You touched it, you got it forever.'
"It amounts to a dispute over whether the road has any public purpose," he added, and that is for each township to decide. Past supervisors could have held different opinions than current ones, he said.
Fenske's organization publishes a Manual on Town Government that predicts vehement disagreement over who should pay to maintain certain roads. It notes that facts "are often incomplete and sometimes even contradictory" when longtime landowners, who have known their town's roads for decades, are involved.
Lindsay, the longtime supervisor, said years ago he confirmed the spillway is a township road, which he took to mean the township would maintain it. But he seemed unaware that a cartway can bear that designation while also needing private maintenance, a possible source of confusion that filtered down to residents like Smith.
"It's possible that something like this is a misunderstanding," Fenske said. "It's also possible that folks — you do something nice for them, try to be helpful, and it becomes an expectation. It becomes an entitlement.
"Everybody wants the other person to pay. That's a pretty common problem."
Standing outside Johnson's bright red house on Judson Bottom Road, where she's lived since 1960, Smith talked about his family's century-long relationship with the older woman's family.
Her father walked across the road in crutches in 1945 and asked Smith's father if he would farm the family's ground. "And we've farmed ever since."
The older woman depends on frequent visits from his family for her physical and mental well-being. Smith's wife calls her nightly to ask if she needs anything. His son does her laundry and her grocery shopping.
Smith put Johnson's feelings bluntly: "She's pissed. And she's the nicest person you will ever, ever, ever meet."
Even if the other supervisors are right about a cartway's maintenance, Smith said, his philosophy is to try to help people with whatever issues they have. Sometimes that means adjusting rules to meet the needs of reality, he said, like when he ordered a township snow plow to clear a path for someone who got hurt beyond the spillway.
A 98-year-old woman who he thinks has done right by others all her life shouldn't have to worry about a perceived wrong in her final years, he said.
"I'm just not gonna let somebody treat her poorly," he said, recalling memories of her working the fields and the two putting up a grain bin while she was in her 80s.
"Because she's been so good to everybody," he added. "It's the way people should be. It's the way people should be."