Minnesota Supreme Court issues a $1 million definition of ‘community’

Look at any photograph involving judges and lawyers and the chances are pretty good that in the background will be a wall of books about the law. Their importance is obvious.

Less obvious, however, is that legal decisions come down to another book: the dictionary. The Minnesota Legislature makes the laws, but lawmakers are rarely clear in the language they use. Enter the dictionary.

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a business owner is not entitled to any more money from Dakota County than he was given when his property was taken by eminent domain. It did so largely on this question: What is a “community?”

It involved the case of Cameron Liquors, a fairly iconic, 155-year-old building in Inver Grove Heights that stood in the way of the reconstruction of Concord Street a few years ago.

Dakota County took George Cameron’s property by eminent domain, a process that required the county to pay the minimum amount comparable to the value of other buildings in the “community.”

The money Cameron was given was based on an earlier sale of a similar store across town, not in his neighborhood.

“A locality is not always a city or town,” Justice David Stras wrote in today’s decision, citing the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

“First, they refer to a particular place that has a socially or governmentally recognized identity. Second, governmental boundaries are relevant to identifying a community or locality, but governmental boundaries do not necessarily define a community or locality.”

While the Supreme Court ruled that it was incorrect to define communityas a lower court did — as “a location where a business can survive and be profitable,” it ruled that officials were correct in identifying “Inver Grove Heights” as the appropriate definition of community in this case.

That’s about a $1 million definition — the difference in what Cameron and a lower court said the old building — once a post office and feed store — was worth.

Justice G. Barry Anderson says the definition will cause problems ahead for businesses in the path of a government that wants property:

But while the majority has made a valiant effort to do what the Legislature did not do in defining “community,” and while the majority’s definition of community might be serviceable in many contexts, I see several problems, not the least of which is that Cameron’s definition is arguably better suited for commercial property given that the sine qua non for all commercial enterprises is profitability.

If the district court’s definition did not adequately capture the “community” that applies to residential property, an equally forceful argument can be made that the majority’s definition, focusing on individuals and localities, fails to precisely identify “community” for commercial property purposes.

Cameron has since built a new store across the street from the old one, on the site of a park his family donated to the city years ago.

Here’s today’s full opinion.