There for the Taking
Like any other homeowner who has just finished a major remodeling project, Dan Ortell evinces a touch of pride as he conducts his tour. His home, which was originally constructed as a resort cabin, retains a pleasingly rustic feel. But over the past year, Ortell has made scads of improvements: new cedar siding, knotty pine paneling, new plumbing, new windows, new doors, new roof, new light fixtures, new appliances. All told, Ortell calculates that he spent about $100,000 on the renovations.
Ortell says he put a lot into the house because he hoped to grow old here in Paradise Alley, as he refers to the ramshackle little enclave on Lake George where he has lived for the past quarter-century. His ambitions are considerably diminished. Now, Ortell says, he is just hustling to salvage as much as he can before the bulldozers and wrecking crews come. Barring a dramatic and unlikely reversal of fortune, that is precisely what will happen in the very near future. Maybe a month. Maybe a week.
That's because Ortell's home, along with 10 neighboring properties, has been targeted by the Oak Grove City Council for redevelopment. To achieve that end, the City Council used the threat of eminent domain proceedings--the legal mechanism under which government agencies can take private property for "public good." In the end, the city successfully negotiated purchases with all the property owners at Paradise Alley. That is, except for Ortell, who in addition to his remodeled cabin owns two duplexes and seven acres in the redevelopment zone.
The council's actions have caused deep divisions in this fast-growing and increasingly affluent Anoka County community of about 7,000 people. Rapid development has sparked conflict in other fast-growing suburbs, a trend that's sure to play out repeatedly as the metro continues to sprawl. But in Ortell's view, the West Lake George Redevelopment Project--the city-backed plan to build a 51-unit senior housing complex and an undetermined number of town homes or single family residences--isn't about addressing a public need or eliminating blight. "This is about social cleansing," Ortell declares. "The City Council just wants to get the low-class people out of here."
Mayor Oscar Olson disputes that charge. But he acknowledges that the tensions over the project have split Oak Grove. Opponents of the project have dominated the public comment portions of the town meetings. Olson attributes this to "intimidation and terrorist" tactics. For instance, the mayor says, one formerly vocal supporter of the redevelopment plan decided to keep her mouth shut after discovering a dead skunk stuffed in her mailbox and kerosene poured around the perimeter of her property. Olson declines to identify the woman. Ortell says he knows nothing of the incident.
According to the mayor, Paradise Alley has been a trouble spot in town for as long as anyone can remember. In the past year and a half, he says, there were about 50 police calls to the area. Most came from a bar and restaurant called the Shoreside, which has since been shuttered and purchased by the city. But Olson says that Anoka County Sheriff's deputies have told him that Paradise Alley, with its inexpensive rentals, is a locus of drug activity in the town. When pressed, the mayor concedes there is little evidence to support the claim. He acknowledges that he once asked the sheriff to look into Ortell's past only to find that there "wasn't anything there."
Even on the City Council, opinions about the project--and the motivations behind it--are varied. Cindy Norling, a recently elected council member, says she is outraged by the City Council's actions on Paradise Alley. "They just don't like Daniel Ortell. And that's what this is all about," says Norling. "Somebody's kid got involved with drugs, and they blamed Daniel. That's why this all came about. I think Daniel is going to sue the city, and he is going to have a case."
For his part, Ortell insists nothing untoward is occurring at Paradise Alley. He acknowledges that a decade or so back he evicted some tenants in his duplexes for drug dealing. "Since then, there hasn't been anything, but the city has designated us as evil, and so they're going to run us out."
Mayor Olson responds that the city had done all that can be expected for the renters and homeowners in Paradise Alley. "My desire was that everything should be friendly. We should be more than fair with these people," he says. All told, the city expects to spend as much as $2.5 million on land acquisition for the project. Barring an appeal, Ortell will receive $631,000 for his three homes and seven acres of property, which is about $100,000 less than the city's original offer.
Council member Ron Sivigny, also a project backer, says the council didn't invoke eminent domain lightly. "Everybody has a bad taste in their mouth using condemnation proceedings. We don't want to do it. But it's in the law for a reason, which is to clean up areas like this," he says. "We have to look at the big picture. We are elected to do what's best for the city."
Everyone, Ortell included, acknowledges that three of the old resort cabins probably should have been torn down long ago because they lacked modern septic systems. But, Ortell insists, those cabins were allowed to remain in place--and to continue polluting the lake--to make it easier to condemn the whole neighborhood.
Ortell is especially irked by a report from a consulting firm, HKS and Associates, which was hired by the city to conduct a blight study. Among other things, HKS asserted that Ortell's two duplexes, which were constructed in accordance with the state building code in the mid-1980s, were blighted. Why? Because it would cost more than 15 percent of their value to bring the dwellings into compliance with newer energy and building codes.
Council member Norling shares Ortell's suspicion about the city's use of the blight standards. "They said his deck was blighted, and it would be $7,000 to replace it. Well, he got a permit on that 15 years ago," Norling says. "I am in real estate and my house is 13 years old. They could blight it. Because of a deck? That's not right."
On his penultimate day at Paradise Alley, Ortell sits on the porch of his remodeled cabin. A shiny black Hummer slowly rolls down the dirt road. The driver, a middle-aged guy with a cowboy hat, is jotting down notes on a clipboard. It's probably a demolition guy sizing up the property for a bid, Ortell theorizes.
The mood is grim as Ortell stares off into the middle distance. He takes a swig of pop and pauses for a moment. "You know," he finally says, "when I go to town meetings, I don't say the Pledge of Allegiance anymore. Not when the government can take your house away. I'm not going to burn a flag or anything. But I won't say the pledge."
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