Fight over access to Black Lake comes down to a 116-year-old document

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The Black Lake, about 12 miles north of Bemidji, is a largely private body of water that’s a poorly kept secret.

Anglers have long known it’s a pan fish honey hole. In summer, canoeists and kayakers use binoculars to bird watch. In fall, hunters arrive to thin the abundant migrating flocks.

The lake lacks a public boat ramp, but near the gravel crossroads of Black Lake Road and Black Creek Lane, there’s an opening maybe 30 feet wide and five feet deep. The narrow strip gently disappears into the water, which makes for an ideal spot to back in a trailer, slide in a boat, and spend a day out on the lake.

But those days could be numbered.

Five landowners along the lake have sued Turtle Lake Township, alleging that the road was built incorrectly and cuts into private property. They’ve grown tired of the public using the spot like they own the place. They want a court to make the trespassing stop.

“It was never intended to be a ramp to get into the lake,” says their attorney Jim Peters. “This was an old wagon road meant to help people get around, not a place to plop your boat in. I think the public understands what a public boat launch is. This is private property."

“It’s kind of the direction of America," Peters added. "People that are getting free stuff are now complaining it’s no longer good enough free stuff and they want more.”

Township lawyer Sam Rufer says nothing could be farther from the truth.

“This is about landowners who don’t want anybody using their lake,” he says. “I think this has been brewing for a long time.”

State law says all Minnesotans have a right to access public waters if a public road’s “right of way” extends to the body of water.

A township order from 1901 called for the road’s creation. The document includes a legal description of where the road goes, spelled out long hand, cursive writing.

“Basically, you got a document that says you start at a stake and then you go this way for a while and then you go that way for another while,” Peters says. “It doesn’t specify how wide the road should be. It was never intended to be a ramp to get into the lake.”  

Turtle Lake’s position isn’t one of boat access, according to Rufer, but of right of way. How the patch of ground is used is secondary to the public’s ability to use it. And decades of public use grandfathers its right of way designation, he says.

The dispute is now in the hands of a survey crew. By researching land records, it’ll be tasked to recreate a map of the road using its historical legal description. That map will be compared with a map that shows where the road now exists.

If they match up, the plaintiffs’ case is lost.

Peters is betting that something got screwed up between the township’s order and the road’s construction, which means it was misplaced to such a degree that private property rights will trump the grandfathered public access.

Rufer understands this unknown is the weak link in the township’s defense.

“This is an arcane legal deal,” he says. “We don’t know exactly where that 1901 road is. It’s not uncommon that roads described a long time ago are nowhere close to where they were supposed to be.”

Rufers gave no timeline as to when the surveys might be completed. A hearing is scheduled in May in Beltrami District Court.