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Surat v. America Township

Supreme Court of South Dakota

November 8, 2017

ROBERT SURAT, DOROTHY SURAT, KIRK SURAT, DESIREE SURAT and SURAT FARMS, LLC, Appellees,
v.
AMERICA TOWNSHIP, BRULE COUNTY BOARD OF SUPERVISORS, Appellants.

          CONSIDERED ON BRIEFS ON APRIL 24, 2017

         APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE FIRST JUDICIAL CIRCUIT BRULE COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA THE HONORABLE BRUCE V. ANDERSON Judge

          THOMAS W. CLAYTON Sioux Falls, South Dakota Attorney for appellees.

          JAY M. LEIBEL Madison, South Dakota Attorney for appellants.

          KERN, Justice.

         [¶1.] The America Township Board of Supervisors (Board) downgraded a seven-mile stretch of road from full maintenance to minimum maintenance. A portion of the road provided the Surat family and Surat Farms, LLC (Surat) access to South Dakota Highway 50. Surat appealed the Board's decision to the circuit court. The circuit court reversed the Board's decision, and the Township appeals. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand with instructions to remand the matter back to the Board for a rehearing.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] Surat owns farmland in Brule County extending into both America and Eagle townships. The property includes Surat's large agricultural operation and a family residence. Surat accesses its property from Highway 50 by traveling east down 264th Street approximately one and a quarter mile. Highway 50 runs through Chamberlain to the north and Platte to the south.

         [¶3.] On January 6, 2015, the Board discussed at its annual meeting whether to designate certain roads as "minimum maintenance." SDCL 31-13-1.1 provides that a township board may designate a road as minimum maintenance "if the board determines that the road or a segment of the road is used only occasionally or intermittently for passenger and commercial travel." Surat did not attend the Board's meeting, and the parties dispute whether the Board provided proper notice of the meeting as required by SDCL 1-25-1.1. The Board had previously discussed whether to downgrade 264th Street and other roads to minimum maintenance at prior meetings. The Board evaluated factors including: the escalating costs to maintain the roads; potential liability concerns stemming from the condition of the roads; issues arising out of Google Maps providing misleading information as to whether roads existed or were traversable; and whether the roads serviced school bus or mail routes or provided access to a residence.

         [¶4.] After discussion, the Board designated the section of 264th Street between Highway 50 and 352nd Avenue, as well as other roads not at issue in this appeal, as minimum maintenance. Members of the Board later posted signs on the section of 264th Street providing access to Surat's property to indicate its status as a minimum maintenance road.

         [¶5.] On February 2, 2015, Surat filed an appeal to the circuit court. On February 16, 2016, the court held a trial and reviewed de novo the decision of the Board. At trial, Kirk Surat testified about his use of the road for primary access to his home and large farming operation. Kenneth Knutson, an officer for the Township, explained the Board's considerations in downgrading sections of 264th Street to minimum maintenance. On cross-examination, Knutson admitted that he did not consider "the amount of farm-related travel that might have gone on" in making his decision.

         [¶6.] On August 31, 2016, the court issued findings of fact, conclusions of law, and an order reversing the Board's decision designating the portion of 264th Street between Highway 50 and 352nd Avenue as minimum maintenance. The court found that 264th Street was a "vital road for civilian use and farm businesses" for those in Eagle and America townships and that Surat used the road almost daily for "medical appointments, groceries, church, driving children to school and going to work." The court also found that farm supply dealers, business customers, school buses, and mail carriers regularly used the road. Further, the court observed that the road provided the only route suitable for travel during inclement weather. Alternative routes appeared to be dirt roads that would quickly become treacherous when wet, exposing drivers to accidents, longer travel times, and substantial inconvenience. With reference to the Board's decision regarding the other roads affected by the January 6 meeting, the court remanded the matter to the Board for further consideration. The Township appeals, asserting three issues for our review:

1. Whether Surat had standing to appeal the decision of the Board to ...

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