A peaceful, winding, dirt road in the middle of the woods in Carlton County's Blackhoof Township is causing some headaches for landowners and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The last quarter-mile of Carlson Road is a minimum maintenance road and a public access to the Blackhoof River. Over the years, only local landowners have maintained the road and incurred the costs. Landowners erected gates at the end of what they thought was their road on private property.
Donna and Skeeter Mullenix were shocked to discover at a Blackhoof Township board meeting Aug. 21 that a road on the back of their property is actually a public access road to the Blackhoof River.
“We have been taking care of that road for the last 20 years,” Skeeter said. He said the road had been impassable and he paid to bring in fill for the annual springtime ruts as well as added pipes for drainage.
His mother, Donna Mullenix, owns property on both sides of the river and his property abuts hers. The property has been in the family since his grandparents bought it in the 1950s.
“It is an official road. It’s a minimum maintenance road,” County Engineer Jinyeene Neuman explained.
A gate with a "no trespassing" sign that blocks access to the road has been there since the early 2000s.
According to the DNR, the gate is the issue because it blocks the public from accessing the road and river. The DNR recently began surveying its property statewide to have accurate and updated information. When DNR staff arrived at the road, they discovered the gate blocking their access.
According to the township, the road was installed as a public access in July 1936 and the township hasn't done any maintenance on the road for most of the time. Due to a state law, the township is no longer allowed to use any money on the access road because it hasn't maintained or spend money on it in over 40 years.
The road was used by landowners in the early 1900s. At one point, there was a bridge over the river to connect the roads. A resident said his mother walked the route to school during that time.
The 2012 flood caused problems for the river. Several trees fell down a deep, muddy incline into the river.
John Lenczeuski from Trout Unlimited said at the meeting he's been working to clean out the damage and rehabilitate the river, restoring it to its former quality.
Duluth Area Fisheries Supervisor Deserae Hendrickson explained the road needs to be open for residents to access. While she wants it accessible to the public, she also said the DNR won't maintain the dirt road.
“I am willing to try to do maintenance on occasion, but we can't make commitments from year to year,” Hendrickson said.
Lenczeuski said Trout Unlimited doesn't have funding for road maintenance.
The township board isn't allowed to spend money on the road, but it wants the public to have access. The township doesn't have incentive to keep up the road because there isn't tax revenue coming back to the township, according to board members.
“We want access to our property,” Hendrickson said. “I’m willing to look at the option of trying to establish a small parking lot so people can park and turn around on the corner of our property.” She added it could take a while.
“The DNR has not been back there for about 40 years, until last year,” Skeeter said. “Then you came and put up signs in the middle of the road and blocked my access to the river on the road I have been maintaining for 20 years. Now I can't drive down it anymore.”
“I believe the only reason it’s an issue now is because there is a nice little road there because the trout stream of America (Trout Unlimited) just put that in,” Donna Mullenix said. “We maintained it, Thor (a neighbor) maintained it and now there’s a nice little road there ... I find that a little bit irritating, to be honest with you.”
Neuman said a petition is the only way residents can change the law so the township can spend money on upgrades to the road.
“So at this point and time, anyone can use this roadway and the DNR can put a parking lot anywhere on their property," Neuman said. "It’s just that the township cannot spend any money on it.”
Residents asked if they would be compensated for the time and money they spent maintaining the road over the years. They were told they would not.
Residents expressed concern the low-maintenance road will quickly be ruined from traffic during the muddy season if it isn't maintained.
Landowners who are connected to the public access can petition allow the township to maintain the road again. The first step is to get the road up to township standards.
“Who gets it up to standards?” Donna Mullenix asked.
A chorus of voices from board members, the county engineer and DNR responded: “the landowners."
“It sounds to me like the landowners are losing either way,” Donna Mullenix said. “They’re going to have people tearing up the roads and the landowners have to fix it before the township gets involved, and chances are they’re not going to get involved.”
Residents asked for signs alerting the public to the location of the private property. The township board members said they cannot spend any money, including for signs.
There was discussion about the DNR putting up signs and/or planting trees at the edge of the property lines to stop the public from driving on private land.
“I’m a little upset about this,” Donna Mullenix said. “Now people are wanting to push further back there. They’re saying they're not maintaining the road but now there’s going to be traffic going back there."
Board members decided the gate needs to be taken down and will send letters to the landowners to notify them of the changes.
The Mullennixes are searching to see if they can find paperwork proving the road had reverted back to landowners about 30 years ago as they were told by a former township board member.