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Judge dismisses annexation lawsuit

BEMIDJI -- The annexation lawsuit between Bemidji Township and the City of Bemidji, ongoing since 2012, was thrown out of court Thursday.

Ninth District Court Judge Paul T. Benshoof ruled in favor of the city and ordered the lawsuit be dismissed with prejudice, essentially preventing it from being filed again.

Benshoof also concluded that the township remains bound by the Orderly Annexation Agreement and Joint Powers Agreement at the heart of the lawsuit, and that the township is still a member of the Greater Bemidji Joint Planning Board. He ordered a vacation of the court order that prevented the JPB from undertaking actions that affected Bemidji Township.

In a memo attached to his findings, Benshoof said that language in a May 31 settlement agreement compelled the township to dismiss the lawsuit.

“The parties settled this lawsuit on May 31, nearly ten months ago,” Benshoof wrote in his memo attached to the ruling. (Italics are Benshoof’s) “Upon the City Council and Town Board’s ratification of the agreement, the parties had a binding agreement. It is long past time to bring this lawsuit to an end.”

However, the township’s legal counsel, John Steffenhagen, said a new lawsuit based on alleged actions that occurred after the settlement agreement is a possibility.

“Bemidji Township is not done attempting to vindicate its rights at all,” he said. “We’re going to have to assess the order, but Bemidji Township believes that some of its strongest claims arose after the date of the settlement agreement. Bemidji Township intends to pursue those claims.”

Jim Thomson, the city’s attorney in the lawsuit, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision, although he noted the township could appeal within 60 days.

“It is the end of this lawsuit,” he said.

In his memo, Benshoof said although the lawsuit was dismissed, it would leave lasting damage to the relationship between the city and the township.

“There is no court order that can undo the damage caused by almost two years of acrimonious litigation,” he said. “A court decision cannot heal the obviously strained relationships between the City and Township representatives any more than it could heal the relationship between neighbors in a land dispute or between former spouses after a painful divorce.”

The lawsuit stems from the annexation of property from the township’s jurisdiction to the city’s, which the township alleged the city did improperly.

Benshoof closed his memo with what may possibly be a challenge to the two sides in the conflict.

“The way forward will be for our city and township leaders to choose,” he said.