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Judge dismisses suit seeking to stop Arbor Park development

A case against the city of Grand Forks over the development of Arbor Park has been thrown out in Grand Forks District Court.

District Judge Steven Marquart has dismissed a lawsuit seeking to set aside the results of an election that allowed Arbor Park in downtown Grand Forks to be the site of a five-story condo building.

The case was filed last month by Grand Forks attorney Henry Howe on behalf of a group of park supporters who argued the city had acted improperly when it held all voting in the June 20 election on the park’s future at a single polling site. In their complaint, the plaintiffs also asserted that the city -- which was represented in the case by attorney Ron Fischer -- had erroneously disqualified two absentee ballots.

Marquart dismissed those claims in a six-page judgment released Friday morning that also called upon the filing group to pay the city’s "costs and disbursements," which will include its small sum of court fees. In his ruling, Marquart stated the city “had no intent to suppress the vote total” by choosing the Alerus Center as its sole polling place. He based that opinion in part on the accessibility of the center’s location, as well as the city’s stated difficulty in finding a sufficient number of election workers to staff the vote at all, much less in multiple locations.

“The Court concludes that the city had good and sufficient reason to have a single polling place,” Marquart wrote, adding that the single location “was not erroneous or fraudulent” under his interpretation of North Dakota Century Code. As for the absentee ballots, Marquart wrote that those who filed the lawsuit “misread” relevant provisions that set guidelines for when ballots are eligible to be counted. The contested votes were sent in too late to be valid, he said, and were properly rejected by the city.

With their legal challenge quashed and the deconstruction of Arbor Park already underway, park supporters will have to consider what options they have left. Park advocate Adam Kemp, whose name was not listed in the legal complaint, said he and other supporters would be gathering soon to discuss their next steps. Howe echoed that plan.

“I can’t speak necessarily for the group, as we need to have a meeting and we’re going to have to go over what the options and things are,” Howe said. “This has got to be a collective decision, it’s not just one plaintiff. We’re going to do that, and then we’ll go from there.”

The city had been in the process of selling the lot to Dakota Commercial and Development even as the case was still in court. Kevin Ritterman, CEO of Dakota Commercial, did not return a call for comment, but has said previously that construction of the $7.5 million condo and commercial building could begin this fall.

City Administrator Todd Feland said the sale was finalized Monday for a price of about $70,000. Feland said the city had anticipated Marquart’s judgment to fall its way but still thought it was “good news” that the judge agreed the vote had been appropriate.

Dana Sande, president of the Grand Forks City Council, also said the city had been confident that Marquart would find them in the right.

“Frankly, I’m surprised the judge didn’t throw it out originally,” Sande said.

He had strong words for the group that brought the suit against the city, particularly Howe, whom Sande accused of having a “vendetta with the city” due to past disputes.

“I can’t figure out how people who are seemingly educated and knowledgeable get drawn into things like this,” he said, adding that he thought the group had used the Arbor Park issue to “simply (try) to poke the city in the eye.”

Sande was ready to be done dealing with Arbor Park.

“That’s that, we’re moving on,” he said. “We’ve got roads to fix and we’ve got opioid problems in our community, we’ve got a water treatment plant that we still haven’t fully funded. There are lots of things that we need to deal with.”

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the amount and kind of legal fees the plaintiffs were ordered to pay on behalf of the city.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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