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IN RE: KEYSTONE TOWNSHIP, et al., Respondents, v. RED LAKE WATERSHED DISTRICT, Appellant, Paul Novacek, et al., Appellants.
Appellants challenge the district court's grant of summary judgment reversing respondent watershed district's order approving a ditch-improvement petition, arguing that the district court erred by concluding that the watershed district lacked jurisdiction to consider the petition. Because the district court erred in identifying the statutory procedures required for the watershed district to establish jurisdiction and respondents’ claims of procedural errors do not establish alternative grounds for summary judgment, we reverse and remand.
Appellants Paul Novacek, et al. (collectively, the Novacek parties) and respondents Owen Peterson, et al. (collectively, the Peterson parties) own land in the drainage area of Polk County Ditch 39, which is located entirely within the boundaries of Polk County (the county) and appellant Red Lake Watershed District (RLWD). In October 2017, the Novacek parties filed a petition with RLWD seeking to improve Ditch 39 because it “needs enlarging or extending to furnish sufficient capacity or a better outlet.”1 The petition recognized that the county had been the drainage authority for Ditch 39 and requested that, upon completion of the improvement, the operation and maintenance of “the entire” ditch be “turned over” to RLWD.
RLWD accepted the improvement petition and appointed an engineer for the project. The engineer submitted a preliminary report in January 2019, opining that the proposed project is necessary, feasible, and practical, and recommending that RLWD proceed with the project. The following month, the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) submitted advisory reports largely agreeing with the engineer's assessment. After notifying affected landowners and the county, RLWD conducted a preliminary public hearing in April 2019. RLWD then issued an order finding the proposed improvement necessary and feasible and directing the engineer to move forward with project planning. RLWD also appointed viewers to assess the proposed improvement's benefits and damages.
In January 2020, the viewers submitted a report that estimated the benefits of the proposed improvement to nearby land, including privately held tracts, conservation areas, roadways, and upstream Polk County Ditch 66. They opined that the benefits would exceed the damages to be paid for permanent right-of-way easements and temporary construction easements. That same month, the engineer submitted a final report detailing plans and costs for the project. At the end of February, DNR issued a final advisory report that approved the engineer's plan for the project. After notifying affected landowners and the county, RLWD conducted a final public hearing on the petition in late July 2020 and approved the improvement project as set forth in the engineer's plan. In its written order, RLWD explained that the matter was “properly before [it]” under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, and the improvement's estimated benefits exceed its total estimated costs, including damages.
The Peterson parties and respondent Keystone Township (the township) appealed to the district court. They challenged RLWD's order on various grounds, including that (1) RLWD lacked jurisdiction to approve the petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, because the county never transferred jurisdiction over Ditch 39 to RLWD; and (2) the proceeding did not “conform to chapter 103E,” as required under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4.2 They moved for summary judgment on both grounds, and the parties submitted stipulated facts.
The district court granted summary judgment on the first ground. It noted that Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, requires a petition to improve a drainage system “in the watershed district” to be filed with the watershed district but does not define the phrase “in the watershed district.” It concluded that it is unclear whether the phrase refers to the watershed district's physical boundaries or its jurisdiction. The court reasoned that the phrase must refer to jurisdiction because Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 1, provides a mechanism for a watershed district to “take over” a drainage system, making such a transfer a prerequisite to a watershed district conducting a drainage-improvement proceeding. Since the county did not transfer jurisdiction over Ditch 39 to RLWD, the court concluded that RLWD lacked jurisdiction to consider the petition.
The Novacek parties and RLWD appeal. We granted leave to the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts and the Red River Watershed Management Board to submit a brief as amici curiae.
I. Did RLWD have jurisdiction to consider the improvement petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4?
II. Did the improvement proceeding conform to chapter 103E?
We review summary judgment de novo “to determine if the district court erred in its application of the law.” City of Circle Pines v. County of Anoka, 977 N.W.2d 816, 822 (Minn. 2022). In granting summary judgment on undisputed facts, the district court interpreted and applied Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 (2022). Statutory interpretation presents a question of law, which we review de novo. In re Bd. of Managers of Bois de Sioux Watershed Dist., 818 N.W.2d 583, 586 (Minn. App. 2012).
Our goal in interpreting a statute is to “ascertain and effectuate” the legislature's intent. Circle Pines, 977 N.W.2d at 823. The first step is to examine the statute's language to see if it is ambiguous. State v. McReynolds, 973 N.W.2d 314, 318 (Minn. 2022). In assessing ambiguity, we read the whole statute, not simply the disputed language. Moore v. Robinson Env't, 954 N.W.2d 277, 280-81 (Minn. 2021). And we construe words and phrases “according to their common and approved usage.” Minn. Stat. § 645.08(1) (2022). We may glean that usage from dictionary definitions, Shire v. Rosemount, Inc., 875 N.W.2d 289, 292 (Minn. 2016), but we also consider how context affects a term's meaning, Getz v. Peace, 934 N.W.2d 347, 355 (Minn. 2019). If we can clearly discern the legislature's intent from the statute's plain language, we apply that unambiguous meaning. McReynolds, 973 N.W.2d at 318. But if the statute is susceptible of multiple reasonable interpretations, the next step is to “look to other tools to interpret its meaning.” Circle Pines, 977 N.W.2d at 823.
I. RLWD had jurisdiction to consider the drainage improvement petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4.
The Minnesota Legislature regulates the state's water through a comprehensive statutory scheme known as the Minnesota Water Law, Minn. Stat. §§ 103A.001-103G.801 (2022). The water law includes one chapter—Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.005-.812, commonly known as the “drainage code”—devoted to the creation and management of drainage systems such as ditches. See Petition for Imp. of Cnty. Ditch. No. 86, Branch 1 v. Phillips, 625 N.W.2d 813, 817 (Minn. 2001). The entity with “jurisdiction”3 over a drainage system or a drainage project is known as the “drainage authority.” Minn. Stat. § 103E.005, subd. 9; see Minch v. Buffalo-Red River Watershed Distr., 723 N.W.2d 483, 487 (Minn. App. 2006), rev. denied (Minn. Jan. 24, 2007). For a drainage system located in a single county outside the metropolitan area, either a county or a watershed district 4 may serve as the drainage authority. Minn. Stat. § 103E.005, subds. 4, 9; Minch, 723 N.W.2d at 487.
Part of a drainage authority's work is to conduct proceedings to address petitions to improve existing drainage systems. See Minn. Stat. § 103E.011, subd. 1. But the drainage authority “does not retain perpetual jurisdiction” to conduct drainage proceedings. Bd. of Managers, 818 N.W.2d at 586 (citing Johnson v. Steele County, 240 Minn. 154, 60 N.W.2d 32, 37 (1953)). Rather, a drainage authority must comply with applicable statutory procedures to establish jurisdiction for each proceeding. Johnson, 60 N.W.2d at 37; see also Hagen, 91 N.W.2d at 660 (stating that drainage proceedings require “strict compliance with the [controlling] statute”).
Our task here is to determine what statutory procedures must be followed to give a watershed district jurisdiction to order improvement of a county ditch. Most procedures for a drainage-improvement proceeding—including who must sign petitions, where to file them, and how much must be paid as bond—are set forth in the drainage code. See Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.202, .215. But Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 specifically addresses drainage systems in watershed districts. It first provides that a watershed district “shall take over a ․ county drainage system within the watershed district and the right to repair and maintain the drainage system if directed by ․ a county board,” but only after the county “has held a hearing on the transfer.” Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 1(a), (b). Thereafter, the drainage system is “part of the works” of the watershed district but still generally subject to the drainage code. Id., subds. 2-3. As to drainage system improvements and new construction, Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 provides:
Construction of new drainage systems or improvements of existing drainage systems in the watershed district must be initiated by filing a petition with the managers. The proceedings for the construction or improvement of drainage systems in the watershed district must conform to [the drainage code], except for repairs and maintenance done pursuant to section 103D.621, subdivision 4.
Id., subd. 4 (emphasis added).
The parties dispute the meaning of the phrase “in the watershed district.” The Novacek parties and RLWD argue that it refers simply to the physical boundaries of a watershed district; as such, the filing of a drainage-code compliant petition with the watershed district alone permits the watershed district to establish jurisdiction over a proceeding to improve a drainage system within its physical boundaries, regardless of whether the watershed district previously acted as drainage authority for the system. The Peterson parties and the township argue that the phrase refers to the watershed district's jurisdiction as drainage authority and implicitly points to subdivision 1, requiring a transfer from the county before a watershed district can establish jurisdiction over a drainage-improvement proceeding.
We look first to the disputed statutory language. The term “in” means “[w]ithin the limits, bounds, or area of.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 885 (5th ed. 2018). Physical spaces have limits or bounds, but so do concepts like jurisdiction. A watershed district, like other political subdivisions, has both physical boundaries and limits to its authority. See Minn. Stat. § 103D.225, subds. 3(4) (requiring that order establishing watershed district state “the boundaries of the watershed district”), 6 (describing a watershed district as a “political subdivision” with prescribed “power, authority, and duties”). Consequently, a drainage system “in the watershed district” could mean one within the watershed district's physical boundaries or one within the watershed district's authority or jurisdiction.
To determine whether both interpretations are reasonable in context, we next consider the rest of the statute. Several factors favor the physical-boundaries interpretation. First, subdivision 4 addresses both improvements to existing drainage systems and the creation of new systems; reading the phrase “in the watershed district” as jurisdictional creates an impossibility—a drainage system yet to be created cannot be under the jurisdiction of the watershed district. Second, even for an existing drainage system under a county's authority, reading subdivision 4 as implicitly requiring a transfer under subdivision 1 for the system to be “in the watershed district” ignores that subdivision 1 expressly focuses on repair and maintenance, while subdivision 4 addresses creation and improvement; they are related but independent concepts, suggesting that the two subdivisions are independent.5 Third, subdivision 1 addresses transfer of authority for a drainage system “within the watershed district,” plainly referring to the watershed district's physical boundaries; we doubt that the legislature intended the nearly identical phrase “in the watershed district” in subdivision 4 to mean something different.
Nonetheless, we cannot simply dismiss the notion that “in the watershed district” in subdivision 4 means in the jurisdiction of the watershed district. To do so would require us to ignore its broader context. Getz, 934 N.W.2d at 355 (stating that a term's meaning “depends on the context in which the term is used”). Subdivision 4 is part of a statute that is largely about jurisdiction—specifically, a county's right under subdivision 1 to determine whether to transfer jurisdiction over a drainage system to a watershed district and what happens thereafter. To read subdivision 4 as permitting a watershed district to consider a petition to improve an existing county drainage system just because the system is located within the physical boundaries of the watershed district effectively divorces it from this context. It is reasonable to conclude that the legislature did not intend such a result.
In sum, the disputed language is susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation. The reference to a drainage system “in the watershed district” in Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, could reasonably mean a system within the physical boundaries of the watershed district or a system within the jurisdiction of the watershed district.
To resolve this ambiguity, we turn to interpretive tools beyond the statute's language. Circle Pines, 977 N.W.2d at 823. These include the occasion and necessity for the law, the object to be attained, legislative history, administrative interpretations of the statute, and the consequences of a particular interpretation. Minn. Stat. § 645.16 (2022); Circle Pines, 977 N.W.2d at 823. We may also consider opinions of the attorney general interpreting the statute. City of Brainerd v. Brainerd Invs. P'ship, 827 N.W.2d 752, 756-57 (Minn. 2013).
Looking first to legislative history, we note that the legislature created watershed districts and enacted Minn. Stat. § 112.65, the precursor to Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, in the 1950s. 1959 Minn. Laws ch. 240, § 1, at 322 (adopting Minn. Stat. § 112.65); 1955 Minn. Laws ch. 799, §§ 1-52, at 1232-58 (providing for establishment and regulation of watershed districts). The precursor statute provided that a watershed district would “take over” a drainage system, “with the right to repair, maintain and improve the same,” upon a county's direction. Minn. Stat. § 112.65, subd. 1 (1960) (emphasis added). And it required petitions to construct or improve drainage systems “within the district” to be filed with the watershed district. Id., subd. 2. The legislature later amended subdivision 1 to remove the reference to improvement authority but left subdivision 2 unaltered. 1967 Minn. Laws ch. 634, § 15, at 1288. This change suggests that the legislature intended for subdivision 1 to address the procedure for transfer of drainage authority only with respect to repair and maintenance and for subdivision 2 to establish a separate procedure for establishing a watershed district's jurisdiction in proceedings to create and improve drainage systems.
The Minnesota Attorney General endorsed this interpretation in two opinions issued in the 1980s. The first stated that it was “clear” that under Minn. Stat. § 112.65, subd. 2, “authority for all improvements lies with the watershed district.” Op. Att'y Gen. 206A (Aug. 4, 1983). And the second similarly concluded that the plain language of Minn. Stat. § 112.65 means that “authority for new construction and improvements lies with the watershed district and that, until a formal takeover occurs, authority over repair and maintenance remains with the ․ county board.” Op. Att'y Gen. 206A (Feb. 5, 1988). The legislature implicitly adopted these interpretations when it later recodified Minn. Stat. § 112.65 as Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 but made no substantive changes to the statute. 1990 Minn. Laws ch. 391, art. 4, § 49; see State v. Loge, 608 N.W.2d 152, 157 n.5 (Minn. 2000) (stating that non-substantive legislative amendments following an attorney-general interpretation “is evidence of legislative intent to adopt” that interpretation).
BWSR has likewise applied this interpretation in its role as the state's principal water-management agency. See Minn. Stat. § 103B.101, subd. 9(a) (providing nonexclusive list of BWSR powers). The Minnesota Public Drainage Manual (MPDM), which BWSR maintains, explains that “[a] watershed district does have jurisdiction over all new drainage systems and improvements to existing systems within its boundaries.”6 MPDM, Ch. 2, Sec. II, Par. C, http://drainage.pca.state.mn.us/index.php/C._Determining_the_Correct_Drainage_Authority [https://perma.cc/2FDC-U5DZ]. Similarly, in its more abridged drainage guidance for practitioners, BWSR explains that when a drainage system “is located within one county, the jurisdictional authority typically is the county board of commissioners,” but “[w]here there is an organized watershed district, the watershed district board of managers is the jurisdictional authority for new ․ drainage systems and improvement of existing drainage systems, in accordance with [Minn. Stat.] § 103D.625.” Minn. Bd. of Water & Soil Res., Understanding Minnesota Public Drainage Law: Handbook, 9 (Apr. 2020), https://bwsr.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/2020-08/UMPDL% 20Handbook.pdf [https://perma.cc/9TV7-E3EC]. And consistent with this general guidance, BWSR stated in its February 2019 advisory report to RLWD that Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, “requires that a petition for establishment or improvement of a ․ drainage system, where there is a watershed district, is to be filed with the watershed district managers.”
Despite the multitude of indicia favoring the physical-boundaries interpretation, the Peterson parties and the township contend that such interpretation is contrary to legislative intent because then watershed districts would be able to make decisions regarding a drainage system under county authority without “notice” to the county. We are not persuaded. As discussed below, a watershed district conducting an improvement proceeding under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, must “conform” the proceeding to the drainage code. This means it must provide notice of the preliminary and final hearings to affected landowners and political subdivisions, including the county. Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.261, subd. 1, .325, subd. 3. And RLWD undisputedly did so here. We recognize that this is not the same as allowing the county to decide whether or not the watershed district should be involved, as it does under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 1. But we cannot doubt that this was the legislature's intent, given the legislative history, attorney-general opinions, and BWSR's administrative guidance.
In sum, the language of Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, its broader context and legislative history, and agency and attorney-general opinions persuade us that a proceeding to improve an existing drainage system that lies within the physical boundaries of a watershed district must be initiated by filing a petition with the watershed district, regardless of whether the watershed district previously acted as the system's drainage authority. The district court erred by concluding that RLWD lacked jurisdiction to consider the improvement petition because the county had not transferred Ditch 39 to RLWD under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 1.
II. The improvement proceeding substantially conformed to the drainage code, and minor deviations from statutory procedures do not invalidate RLWD's decision.
We will affirm summary judgment if it can be sustained “on any ground presented to the district court.” All, Inc. v. Hagen, 970 N.W.2d 681, 684 (Minn. App. 2021). The Peterson parties and the township argue that summary judgment is warranted on the alternative ground that RLWD's proceeding did not “conform” to the drainage code, as required by Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4. They assert three nonconformities: (1) the county officials referenced in the drainage code were not involved in the proceeding, (2) RLWD failed to comply with drainage-code requirements as to property owners’ reports, and (3) RLWD failed to comply with drainage-code requirements as to the final hearing.7 We address each assertion in turn.
Involvement of County Officers
The Peterson parties and the township focus principally on the lack of county involvement in the improvement proceeding. They do not dispute that RLWD's officers and employees completed the procedures specified in the drainage code. But they argue that the proceeding did not conform to the drainage code because (1) Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 4(b), requires that an improvement petition be “filed with the auditor” but the petition was never filed with the county auditor; (2) Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 5, requires that the auditor then present the petition to “the board” but the petition was never presented to the county board; and (3) Minn. Stat. § 103E.202, subd. 4, requires the petitioners to file a bond with “the auditor” but they never filed a bond with the county auditor.8
All of these arguments turn on whether “conform[ing]” to the drainage code requires literal compliance with all drainage statutes, including those that require county officers to perform certain acts. We agree that the code provisions often refer specifically to county officers, such as the “auditor” which means the county auditor. Minn. Stat. § 103E.005, subd. 3. But we are not persuaded that the only way to “conform” to these provisions is for county officers to perform the specified procedures.
The term “conform” refers to “be[ing] or act[ing] in accord with a set of standards, expectations, or specifications,” and is synonymous with “correspond.” American Heritage, supra, at 386. It connotes alignment, not literal compliance. Accordingly, an improvement proceeding before a watershed district “conform[s]” to the drainage code when the filing, review, bond, hearing, notice, and other requisite procedures are completed by the appropriate watershed district officers and employees. See Minn. Stat. § 103D.315, subd. 3 (listing watershed district officers), .325, subd. 1 (permitting watershed districts to hire engineers and other employees).
This interpretation finds further support in the unreasonableness of the alternative, under which petitioners would be required to file the improvement petition with the watershed district managers under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, and also with the county auditor under Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 4(b). Indeed, the Peterson parties and the township insist this double filing would be required even if the county had previously transferred the drainage system to the watershed district under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 1. Moreover, the drainage code requires the county attorney to review each drainage petition for compliance with statutory requirements, Minn. Stat. § 103E.238, but literal compliance with that requirement is problematic. If the county attorney conducts this review for the county, which lacks any authority in the proceeding, the exercise merely duplicates the review that the watershed district must conduct; if the county attorney conducts this review for the watershed district, they will violate Minn. Stat. § 103E.071, which prohibits the county attorney appearing in a drainage proceeding except as counsel for the county. In short, reading the term “conform” to require county officers’ involvement makes the procedures in the drainage code redundant and sometimes contradictory.
Property Owners’ Reports
A drainage authority must appoint viewers to “determine the benefits and damages to all property affected by the proposed drainage project.” Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.305, subd. 1, .311. A property may be benefited “immediately” by the project, or indirectly, such as by providing or improving a drainage outlet. Minn. Stat. § 103E.315, subd. 5(a). If the proposed project “furnishes an outlet to an existing drainage system,” the viewers must determine the “benefits [to] the property drained by the existing system” and assess those benefits either individually—“to each tract or lot drained by the existing drainage system”—or collectively—as “a single amount as an outlet benefit to the existing drainage system” or as “benefits on a watershed acre basis.” Minn. Stat. § 103E.315, subd. 6(a). Within 30 days after the viewers submit their report, the drainage authority must use “the information” therein to prepare “a property owners’ report” that compiles certain information “for each property owner benefited or damaged by the proposed drainage project.” Minn. Stat. § 103E.323, subd. 1. The drainage authority “must mail a copy of the ․ report” to each affected property owner. Id., subd. 2.
The Peterson parties and the township argue that RLWD did not satisfy the requirements concerning property owners’ reports because (1) it did not make or mail property owners’ reports to the owners of properties that lie within the benefited area of upstream Ditch 66 for which the improved Ditch 39 will provide an outlet; and (2) the property owners’ reports that it did send were untimely. Neither argument is availing.
First, the requirement to prepare property owners’ reports applies only if the information in the viewers’ report reflects that the project results in benefits or damages to specific property. See Minn. Stat. § 103E.323, subd. 1. When the viewers determine that the project benefits another drainage system, they may assess the benefit collectively to the drainage system, to be prorated among those benefited by the system. Minn. Stat. § 103E.315, subd. 6(a), (b). In that case, the viewers’ report contains no information as to benefits to specific properties and, therefore, no basis for issuing property owners’ reports to the owners. The record reflects, and the parties do not dispute, that the viewers assessed a collective outlet benefit to the Ditch 66 system of approximately $170,000. Because the viewers did not assess the Ditch 66 outlet benefit to specific properties, RLWD did not err by not preparing and mailing property owners’ reports addressing that benefit.
As to their second argument, the Peterson parties and the township are correct that RLWD did not prepare reports for the individual property owners affected by the improvements to Ditch 39 within the 30-day deadline set out in Minn. Stat. § 103E.323. The viewers submitted their report on January 23, 2020, and RLWD did not prepare and mail the property owners’ reports until two months later. But the Peterson parties and the township identify no authority for the proposition that this delay invalidates RLWD's decision.
To the contrary, nothing in Minn. Stat. § 103E.323 provides a consequence for noncompliance. And the drainage code generally demonstrates a preference for procedural lenience. See Minn. Stat. §§ 103E.051(a) (“A party may not take advantage of an error in a drainage proceeding ․ unless the party complaining is directly affected.”), .261, subd. 3(b) (requiring that petitioners be afforded opportunity to correct petition that does not meet “legal requirements”). Since Minn. Stat. § 103E.323 merely defines the time for drainage authorities to “discharge their duties,” as a means of securing order and uniformity in drainage proceedings, it is directory. See In re M.O., 838 N.W.2d 577, 583 (Minn. App. 2013) (quotation omitted), rev. denied (Minn. Oct. 23, 2013). As such, noncompliance with that statute's timing requirement does not warrant relief absent a showing of prejudice. Riehm v. Comm'r of Pub. Safety, 745 N.W.2d 869, 876 (Minn. App. 2008), rev. denied (Minn. May 20, 2008). The Peterson parties and the township have neither claimed nor demonstrated prejudice.
A drainage authority must conduct a final hearing on a proposed drainage project “[p]romptly” after receiving the viewers’ and DNR's final reports. See Minn. Stat. § 103E.325, subd. 1. “The hearing must be set 25 to 50 days after the date of the final hearing notice.” Id.; see also Minn. Stat. § 103D.735(a) (requiring watershed district to conduct final hearing within 35 days of engineer's final report). Notice of the hearing must be given “by publication, posting, and mail.” Minn. Stat. § 103E.325, subd. 3.
The Peterson parties and the township contend that: (1) RLWD's notice of the final hearing was “defective” because it was not published and provided fewer than 25 days’ notice, and (2) the final hearing was untimely because it was not held within 35 days of the engineer's final report. These contentions are factually correct. RLWD posted and mailed notice of the final hearing, but neither notice preceded the hearing by at least 25 days and there is no indication in the record that the notice was published. RLWD also received all final reports by the end of February 2020 but did not conduct the final hearing until five months later. But again the Peterson parties and the township have not demonstrated that these procedural shortfalls invalidate RLWD's decision.
As with the requirements regarding the timing of property owners’ reports, the notice and hearing requirements are directory. There is no statutory consequence for noncompliance; to the contrary, there is a procedure for correcting a failure to provide notice or a defect in the notice. Minn. Stat. § 103E.325, subd. 4. And there is no claim that any deviation from the notice and hearing requirements prevented any landowner or political subdivision from participating in the hearing. Accordingly, we conclude that the minor deviations with respect to final-hearing procedure do not invalidate RLWD's decision.
Because the improvement petition was properly filed with the watershed district under Minn. Stat. § 103D.625, subd. 4, the district court erred by granting summary judgment on the ground that the watershed district lacked jurisdiction to approve the petition. Nor do the alternative grounds urged in favor of summary judgment warrant affirmance because none of the minor, nonprejudicial deviations from prescribed procedure invalidate the watershed district's decision. Accordingly, we reverse summary judgment and remand for consideration of any properly preserved challenges to the watershed district's decision.
Reversed and remanded.
1. Improvement means “the tiling, enlarging, extending, straightening, or deepening of an established and constructed drainage system.” Minn. Stat. § 103E.215, subd. 2 (2022).
2. The county received notice of the district court appeal but did not participate, and it is not a party to this appeal.
3. The term “jurisdiction” appears frequently in the drainage code. As we have previously noted, the term “jurisdiction” refers to limits on judicial powers but is often used “in reference to nonjurisdictional concepts and doctrines.” Bd. of Managers, 818 N.W.2d at 586 n.2. Because drainage proceedings “are purely statutory and their validity depends upon a strict compliance with the [controlling] statute,” Hagen v. Martin County, 253 Minn. 367, 91 N.W.2d 657, 660 (1958), jurisdiction serves as a useful analogy, Bd. of Managers, 818 N.W.2d at 586 n.2. Given its utility and frequent application in drainage cases, we continue that practice here.
4. Watershed districts are political subdivisions established for the purpose of conserving the state's natural resources. Minn. Stat. §§ 103D.201, .225, subd. 6.
5. The amici argue that Minn. Stat. § 103D.625 provides two different procedures for a watershed district to assume the role of drainage authority—through a transfer from the county at any time under subdivision 1 or attendant to a creation or improvement proceeding under subdivision 4. The issue whether an improvement proceeding under subdivision 4 means that the watershed district acts as drainage authority for the improved system thereafter is outside the scope of this appeal. RLWD's order did not expressly address it, the notice of appeal to the district court did not address it, and the district court did not decide it. Consistent with that procedural history, the parties allude to this issue in their briefs but do not substantively analyze it. And the amici's argument cannot place the issue before us. See Hegseth v. Am. Fam. Mut. Ins. Grp., 877 N.W.2d 191, 196 n.4 (Minn. 2016) (stating that appellate court “generally will not consider arguments raised for the first time on appeal” or “decide issues raised solely by an amicus”). Accordingly, we do not decide in this opinion whether the county or RLWD is or should be the drainage authority for Ditch 39 going forward.
6. The Peterson parties and the township argue that the MPDM actually supports the jurisdictional interpretation that they urge, pointing to one sentence in the manual that states that a petition to improve a drainage system must be filed with a watershed district if the system is “located within the jurisdiction of a watershed district.” MPDM, Ch. 2, Sec. III, Par. C, https://drainage.pca.state.mn.us/index.php?title=C._Improvement_of_Drainage_System [https://perma.cc/MR52-PCBA]. But the term “jurisdiction” is paired with the term “located” and therefore is plainly a colloquial reference to the watershed district's physical boundaries.
7. While the district court did not address these arguments, the parties agree they were presented to the district court and urge us to decide whether they are alternative grounds for affirming summary judgment.
8. They also claim error in RLWD's failure to obtain the county auditor's certification of the improvement petition under Minn. Stat. § 103D.211, which requires that an auditor who “receives a copy of an establishment petition must determine if the petitioners are resident owners.” But that statute applies to a petition to establish a watershed district, not one to improve a ditch within a watershed district. Minn. Stat. § 103D.011, subd. 11.
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Docket No: A22-1163
Decided: April 17, 2023
Court: Court of Appeals of Minnesota.
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