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Lac du Flambeau residents sue town over tribal road barricades

Lawsuits claim Town of Lac du Flambeau failed to keep its roads open and secure permanent access to homes

Barricaded road on the LDF reservation
The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa barricaded some town roads where easements have expired on Jan. 31, 2023, making it difficult for dozens of residents to come and go on the reservation. Photo courtesy of Mary Possin

Residents whose access to their homes was blocked by a northern Wisconsin tribe last winter are suing the Town of Lac du Flambeau for being unable to permanently keep four of its roads open. Two lawsuits have already been filed with more likely on the way.

The first two lawsuits against the town from homeowners were filed by Lac du Flambeau residents Robert and Nicole Beer and Michael Hornbostel in Vilas County Circuit Court.

The suits seek unspecified monetary damages from the town for being unable to keep four roads leading to the homes open amid an ongoing right-of-way easement dispute between the town and Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

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The tribe barricaded the roads from Jan. 31 through March 13 after negotiations over long-expired easements fell apart. Since then, the town has been making monthly payments to the tribe for temporary access.

The Beers and Hornsbostel claim the town granted building permits when their homes were built in 2021 and 1997, respectively, which assured “that there would be public road access to enter and leave the Property and residence in perpetuity.” They allege the town broke that promise when it allowed the tribe to place the barriers.

The suits argue the placement of barriers and the town’s inability to “secure permanent unrestricted public road access” have “rendered the Property useless for all reasonable purposes” and constitutes a seizure without just compensation.

Town of Lac du Flambeau Board Supervisor Gloria Cobb told WPR she could not comment on pending litigation. Board chair Matt Gaulke and supervisor Bob Hanson did not respond to requests for comment.

Shane VanderWaal of Wausau is one of the attorneys representing the homeowners. He told WPR that when the barricades were up, his clients had “to go across a frozen lake to get to work every day.”

And while the barricades were removed months ago, he said, the homeowners are still suffering real monetary damages.

“When they go to try to sell their houses, they’re essentially unsalable because who is going to purchase a property that you don’t know if you can get to in the next month?” VanderWaal said.

VanderWaal said he and another lawyer representing homeowners have filed notices of intent, the first step in a lawsuit, against the town on behalf of other property owners.

“So, will there be other ones coming? Probably,” VanderWaal said.

A separate lawsuit, filed by the Town of Lac du Flambeau against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, claims it has received 12 notices, “which, in total, seek more than $6,000,000.00 in damages.”

When asked how he and his clients think the town could have prevented the tribe from blocking roads crossing reservation land, VanderWaal said that’s beside the point of the lawsuit.

“The basic claim is that the town has a duty to keep all town roads passable,” VanderWaal said. “And they have a duty to provide access, public access, to our properties. They haven’t done that. And they continue not to be able to do that.”

Meanwhile, the Town is being sued by the federal government for knowingly trespassing on tribal lands for years after right-of-way easements expired. That suit claims the town sent letters to some residents living on roads at the center of the dispute in 2014 requesting homeowners “not engage in further communication with the (Bureau of Indian Affairs).”

A federal lawsuit brought against tribal council members by the Beers, Hornbostel and 36 other homeowners was dismissed in federal court Aug. 15.