Plaintiffs ask Supreme Court to review lake level case

The case involves the state’s environmental laws; particularly a doctrine of public trust that binds the state to protect its natural resources on citizens’ behalf — like those who use White Bear Lake for recreation.

ST. PAUL — As expected, the parties that won the lake level lawsuit against the Department of Natural Resources, then lost on appeal, have requested review by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

In a petition filed May 21, attorney Byron Starns, who represents the White Bear Lake Homeowners' Association, maintained that the Court of Appeals' decision in this case presents important issues with “far-reaching precedential impact.”

“The decision directly affects White Bear Lake, its surrounding communities, citizens who live in those communities, and citizens from other areas who exercise the public's right to use the navigable waters of White Bear Lake,” Starns wrote.

The homeowners' counsel contends that the appellate decision has statewide importance. “It overrules or ignores prior judicial precedent interpreting the scope of claims authorized by the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act (MERA), section 116B.03. The decision also makes new law by limiting long-established precedent of this court, recognizing that the common law Public Trust Doctrine protects the state's navigable waters and beds from alienation or waste by inaction or action of their trustee, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.”

In his beginning statement, Starns said the Court of Appeals 2-1 decision “evoked a substantive legal dissent on both issues.” The majority opinion calls out for Supreme Court review of its interpretation of both MERA and the Public Trust Doctrine, he wrote, pointing out that the Court of Appeals did not set aside any of the district court's factual determinations, but decided the case on jurisdictional grounds.

Starns argued that the majority conclusion is based on a “misreading of factual findings” and overlooked the finding that the DNR independently violated state law and its own regulations with regard to surface and ground water management.

Starns maintained that the Court of Appeals “recognized the force of the Public Trust Doctrine and its application to navigable waters and their beds but the majority refused to apply the doctrine for two reasons: because it mistakenly concluded that the claims and factual findings only related to the DNR's permitting for groundwater extraction from the aquifer and that such claims and findings were not within the scope of the Doctrine as construed.”

The (Appeals Court) majority has invited Supreme Court review of the Public Trust claim, Starns iterated, “by relying on its limitations as an error-correcting court for its dismissal of the claim.”

The lake association is an intervenor on the side of the plaintiff and co-petitioner, the White Bear Lake Restoration Association.

The petition now goes to the Supreme Court Commissioner's Office for analysis before consideration by the high court. Petitions are generally considered within 60 days of filing.

According to 2011 Minnesota Court Rules, the court hears regularly scheduled arguments each month, September through June. Its primary role in reviewing Court of Appeals decisions is to set precedent that develops and clarifies the law in important issues of broad impact. The high court rarely grants review just to correct an erroneous decision that affects only the parties to that case. As a result, the court grants review in only a small percentage of cases.

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