Scott Thielen was looking to make his home on Prior Lake with his wife, children and grandchildren. When a city water main broke and flooded his home with raw sewage, he saw an opportunity to rebuild with an aging-friendly design.
What happened instead, according to Thielen’s statements during a March Planning Commission hearing, is he found himself on the wrong side of city code and launched a lawsuit over the 45 feet of lakeshore on the edge of his land.
“(Thielen) wants the city not to have to spend money, he doesn’t want to have to spend money,” Paul Haik, Thielen’s attorney, said. “All he wants to do is rebuild his home.”
Prior Lake officials have said the city did everything it could about the sewage and the house issues.
“We don’t feel there is any merit to Mr. Thielen’s damages claims,” said Jason Kuboushek, the city’s attorney.
Both parties are scheduled to appear in court in November. If no resolution is reached, a jury trial is currently scheduled for June 16, 2020.
Thielen filed his suit in the Scott County District Court in June after the Planning Commission and City Council denied his proposal.
His new design extended about 7 feet into a setback, the city’s minimum distance between structures and waterways. Thielen thought the extension was a non-issue, telling Planning Commissioners in March that a city planner told him the lakeshore could be included in the property’s size calculations.
City policy states the shore is a common space and therefore not calculated in property sizes.
A court decision from 1999 on the Green Heights development complicated the matter by giving all residents the right to walk the beach but only lakeshore residents the right to build or maintain the shoreline — essentially granting ownership in everything but name.
A March memo to the city from City Attorney Sarah Schwarzhoff advised city staff and the Planning Commission that legally they could decide either way.
“Green Heights is a middle ground where lakeshore lot owners do not own the waterfront but do have some exclusive rights to it and have the obligation to paint it,” Schwarzhoff wrote. “Therefore, it is reasonable for the Planning Commission to either approve or deny the variance.”
Commissioners said they worried about the precedent Thielen’s request would set, potentially opening the city up to be in the middle of lakeshore disputes between other neighbors. The Commission voted no on the request twice and was backed up by the City Council in May.
So Thielen went to the courts hoping for clarity and a compromise on the issue, Haik said. He said instead the city has refused mediation and is needlessly charging forward.
“This just seems inappropriate that we should have to litigate this,” Haik said. “This is something that should be discussed an arrangement worked that protects the interests of the city and protects the interest of Mr. Thielen.
Kuboushek said the city hasn’t refused mediation outright but is “aggressively defending the claims.”
Super Bowl sewage
Compounding the situation is the reason Thielen says he’s forced to rebuild his home: extensive raw sewage damage from a city water main break has made the home stink, according to the suit.
On Super Bowl Sunday this year, a water main on Green Heights Trail in Prior Lake broke and flowed down a hill to a sanitary sewer lift station. The pumps weren’t able to keep up with the amount of water flowing in, backing several inches of sewage into the basement of four Green Heights homes.
“Sewage is very powerful. It penetrates,” Haik said. “It’s not like a spill on the floor. It’s something radically different.”
Thielen recently amended his complaint in the court system to include accusations of negligence and nuisance, arguing the city should be responsible for the damages done to the property by the sewage.
Kuboushek said Prior Lake did everything in its power to fix things once they knew the pipe was broken.
“They got notice of (the break) and got the water shut off in less than an hour,” Kuboushek said. “The city staff did a great job responding as quickly as possible.”
Even so, Thielen’s amended complaint says his damages total over $50,000.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year the water main broke.