Redrawing of Minn. property lines causes concern for longtime landowners

GRYGLA, Minn. -- Tucked in the woods, rural St. Petri Lutheran Church survives despite being supported by only seven families, with an average Sunday attendance of 20.

St. Petri Lutheran Church
St. Petri Lutheran Church of rural Grygla, Minn., finds one-half of the church and cemetery located on Minnesota DNR land after the DNR re-drew property lines based on new GPS technology. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

GRYGLA, Minn. -- Tucked in the woods, rural St. Petri Lutheran Church survives despite being supported by only seven families, with an average Sunday attendance of 20.

A minister, shared with three other congregations, preaches every Sunday. The 200-grave cemetery is neatly shorn and weed-free. Maintaining the 110-year-old church property clearly is important from the members' commitments of time, money and emotions.

"A lot of the people buried here weren't members of the church, so this isn't just about the church. The whole community is involved here," Jim Sparby said, explaining the attachment.

The idyllic image of the church aside, church board members Sparby, Elden Neuschwander and Brent Klamar feel that St. Petri's is under siege from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

According to land surveys conducted recently by the DNR, St. Petri's is located on state land. The DNR's satellite technology shows property lines that cut through the middle of the church and the middle of the cemetery. It means the state holds title to about half of the church property's two acres.


"If that's the case, the DNR should be paying half our bills," Sparby said with a laugh.

The church was established in 1901, about 30 years before the DNR existed. The land was donated by a settler, but the change of ownership was never legally recorded. So, on paper, it belongs to the state.

The DNR isn't planning a takeover. "We have no interest in ownership of that property," said Doug Franke, an area wildlife manager based in Thief River Falls.

The DNR has a similar issue with the Espelie Township Cemetery in Marshall County. A survey showed state ownership of the 1-acre cemetery. It has offered to sell the graveyard to the township for $1 plus transaction costs. Espelie Township Clerk Jean Halvorson said a DNR letter received Thursday put the total cost at $463.65.

"I don't think the township officers are going to like it," Halvorson said. "It's not going to fly."

Sparby has a zero dollar threshold in mind. "The DNR is trying to do a land grab," he said. "I'm against it as a matter of principle even if it costs us $1."

200 acres of trespass

While churches and cemeteries may make for high-outrage, most of the differences between landowners and the DNR in northwest Minnesota have been about the resurveying of farmland and hunting land abutting wildlife management areas.


Dan Fabian, a state legislator from Roseau who represents the northwestern corner, said the surveys have created problems for many rural landowners. It's common, he said, for the boundary line being moved after 30-40 years in an established spot.

In 95 percent of the cases of the property line errors, Franke said, a private landowner had been using state land rather the vice versa.

"We are protecting the rights and privileges of the 5 million people of Minnesota who own this land," Franke said.

"In our area, there has been more than 200 acres that we consider a trespass, where people have occupied state land in some form or fashion knowingly or unknowingly. If you use that percentage across Minnesota, there is millions of dollars worth of state land that is being impacted."

Settlements are possible

Settlements are on a case-by-case basis. But, Franke said the DNR is more likely to sell the disputed land to farmers than individuals who are using it for recreation.

"If there's evidence of a history of a farmer using a drainage ditch on state property, we're more than happy to work with them if they want to retain the ditch," he said. "If it's just being farmed and there is no drainage ditch, we likely will ask them to stay on their side of the line.

"When it comes to recreation and hobbies, we also likely will ask them to stay on their side of the line."


Arlys and Jerry Strandberg of Strathcona are among the affected. They said the survey changed their lifestyle on their 200-acre hobby farm, which is surrounded by state land.

They hunted partridge on their land and enjoyed taking their eight grandchildren on rides on a Polaris Ranger on 120 acres of wooded land.

"Our trail connections are now lost," Arlys said. "The boundary lines have moved from 10 feet up to 50 feet. And we can't use anything for a fire break anymore.

"This had been considered our land since we were married in 1971. It's silly. It's not helping anyone. It's just annoying us."

She said neighbors have been affected, with the loss of ditches, fire breaks and a road to a deer hunting group's cabin.

The Strandbergs are among those who express frustration that the law of adverse possession isn't in effect with governments as it is among private citizens. Adverse possession is a common law concept concerning the title to real property. It means that title to another's real property can be acquired by holding the property for a specified period. Squatter's rights are a form of adverse possession.

In the case of many landowners, under adverse possession, the established, long-held boundary lines would have granted them the property rights.

An agreement reached


The case of Stu Weston of Roseau shows that the DNR can be flexible.

He owns land on the northwest corner of Hayes State Park. What he believed to be the boundary line was a barbed wire fence that had stood for more than 80 years.

But, after a survey several years ago, the DNR placed ribbons on his boundary line. One of the ribbons was on his cabin.

"I like to say that when I shut the cabin door, the door knob is in the state park," Weston said.

He used the cabin, a 20-minute drive from his home, for hunting, snowmobiling, cross country skiing and "hanging out with the bugs." So, he fought it.

Recently, Weston and the DNR have reached a tentative agreement that he can buy four acres that include his cabin at its assessed value.

"Hopefully, we can settle this with common sense and without going to court," Weston said. "For the most part, the DNR people have been pretty good.

"But I wasn't going to back down. The lesson is that a person has to hold his ground. A lot of people in a similar situation have sat on their hands."


Urging a survey halt

Fabian, a first-term legislator, encourages others to follow Weston's lead. He also suggests that the DNR stop its statewide survey.

"It's stirred up a hornet's nest and created hard feelings," Fabian said. "Landowner rights are precious to people. For public relations, it's been a bad deal for the DNR.

"If a guy owns 80 acres of hunting land and it's off by 1.3 acres, what does it hurt the state to settle when the state owns 5.5 million acres?"

Fabian concedes that some farmers and other landowners have "stretched the boundaries way too much and grabbed too much state land. So, deal with them."

However, he is seeking an audit of expenses incurred by the survey.

"From a practical standpoint, what did the state gain?"

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send e-mail to .


Marshall County commissioner Gary Kiesow talks about recent re-drawing of property lines
Marshall County commissioner Gary Kiesow, left, talks with (L-R) Jim Sparby, Grant Satre, Elden Neuschwander and Brent Klamar recently at St. Petri Lutheran Church about the recent re-drawing of the property lines that now put about one-half of the rural Grygla, Minn., church and cemetery on Minnesota DNR land. Herald photo by Eric Hylden

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