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County loses another round in development dispute

In an eight-page decision filed early last week, Trempealeau County Judge John Damon rejected all of Pierce County's motions to end a lawsuit in which Trumpeter Development is asking for over $4 million in damages.

The judge found Trumpeter's property interests were denied without legal basis, and he is allowing the developer to make claim for damages related to all the lots in the development.

"Trumpeter invested money to install an infrastructure to comply with obtaining (approval for development)," wrote Damon. "This substantial property interest was denied for no reasonable justification, as there was no legal basis for the denial."

Judge Damon also found there is enough question of whether the individual members of the committee acted in good faith to preclude dismissing them from the case.

He directed Trumpeter's attorney, John Kassner, to contact the court to set up a scheduling conference for further proceedings.

The litigation, which involved two lawsuits, has continued since February 1999, when the Pierce County Land Management Committee denied approval of 13 certified survey maps that would have allowed Trumpeter to develop the last 41 of 125 residential lots.

Trumpeter is an 817-acre development on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi and Big rivers. The developer bought the first 675 acres in March 1996 from the George L. Jacques Trust and the other 142 acres from Bruce and Janda Thompson in 1997 and 1998.

The land was eventually divided into 125 lots through a series of certified survey maps. The committee approved the earlier maps, allowing those lots to be developed, but balked at approving the last 41 lots, insisting Trumpeter give the county land for parks rather than paying a per-lot park fee as the developer had in the past.

Judge Damon noted that, in denying final approval of the 41 lots, the members of the land management committee relied on the advice of attorney William Thiel, who advised the committee had the authority to hold up approval.

In an opinion dated Jan. 10, 2000, Pierce County Judge Robert Wing agreed the county had no legal authority to condition approval of the lots on the dedication of parkland.

In April 2004, the District III Court of Appeals upheld a Buffalo County judge's ruling that Pierce County's insurance company provided no coverage for the lawsuit.

These are among the county motions denied by Judge Damon:

--The county's lawyer Robert Horowitz argued there was no "temporary taking" because the fair market value of the land increased during the period of delay. Damon disagreed, relying on case law: "The idea that the only measure of damages is the difference in fair market value was rejected in Wheeler v City of Pleasant Grove..."

--The county's attorney argued Judge Wing's earlier statements about a taking preclude Trumpeter from litigating the issue of whether there was a taking. Judge Damon noted Judge Wing had concluded there was a taking and that suit was dismissed to allow the appeal of Wing's decision.

--The county maintained Trumpeter's due process and equal protection claims should be dismissed. But Judge Damon agreed the delay from March 1998 to February 1999 "was a violation of procedural due process." Damon also found there is enough question as to whether Trumpeter was treated differently than other applicants to allow the equal protection claim to continue.

These are the former land management committee members named in the lawsuit: Rita Kozak, Bill Schroeder, LeRoy Peterson, Rich Ruemmele, Dan Pittman, George Petaja (deceased), Merlin Blaisdell and Jeff Holst.