The University of Minnesota owes the pilots of Jensen Field Inc. a little more than $140,000 after making them move off of its UMore Park property, according to Tuesday’s Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling.
Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, said the Office of the General Counsel is reviewing the decision and will decide whether to file an appeal to the state supreme court in the coming weeks.
Jensen Field attorney Jon Morphew said he and his clients were satisfied with the decision.
“We think it’s a great decision for the protection of tenants in the state of Minnesota that can’t just be thrown to the wind and not be paid relocation benefits,” he said.
A little history
According to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and previous Minnesota Daily articles, the University bought the 8,000-acre piece of land in the late 1940s, naming it UMore Park. In 1986, Jensen Field entered a five-year lease for eight acres of the land and turned it into an airfield.
The original lease agreement stated that Jensen Field would have to remove their buildings and development from the land and return it to the way they found it when the lease ended.
From 1991 to 2009, Jensen Field extended the lease in two- and one-year increments. But in 2009, the University received an $8 million federal stimulus grant to construct a wind turbine at UMore Park and refused to renew the group’s lease.
The University sent Jensen Field a letter in November of 2009, requesting that they deconstruct any property they had on the land by October of the following year so they could begin construction on the turbine.
At the time, Jensen Field had 13 airplane hangars on the land, owned by 10 different people.
But because of the 1970 Federal Uniform Relocation Act, which mandates assistance for people displaced by federally funded projects, the court determined that Jensen Field should get financial assistance from the University because a federal grant forced them to be displaced.
According to the court opinion, All Furniture Inc., a relocation company, estimated the cost for Jensen Field to move their property was $141,825, so judges ordered the University to pay that amount.
A ‘fair hearing’
Morphew said if the University does not appeal the case, Jensen Field will file a lawsuit under the Minnesota Equal Access to Justice Act to make the University pay for their clients’ attorney fees as well.
Rotenberg said one of Jensen Field’s main arguments centered on the appointment of Kathleen O’Brien, former vice president for University Services, as hearing officer for the case before it was brought to court.
Morphew said they were sure a University employee would rule in favor of the University in this case, which O’Brien did.
“We were confident that once we got a fair hearing that we would indeed prevail,” he said, “and we were right.”
But the court ruling did not find O’Brien’s appointment to be unfair, to which Rotenberg said he was very pleased.
“The plaintiff there made a big push to have the court invalidate the procedure and the process that we used,” he said. “And the court rejected those arguments.”
Not ‘cutting any checks’
Rotenberg also said there were several legal and factual aspects of the case yet to be considered by the court, which is why the case could need further review at the state supreme court. Among them is the fact that the UMore Park development is a large property that has many different projects planned for it, he said.
“It’s not really just about the federal grant for the wind turbine,” he said.
If the University ends up having to pay the money, Rotenberg said it would come out of an UMore Park account.
Morphew said the case set a precedent for tenants in Minnesota and affirmed the URA.
“The government can’t get these projects and then just say we’re going to simply wait until the tenants lease expires and not pay them relocation benefits,” he said.
But Rotenberg said the case is not over.
“We’re not at the stage where we’re cutting any checks yet,” he said.
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