Patrick McCarthy is wary of a recent court ruling that protects - at least for now - his ancestors' sprawling acreage of farmland and woods in central Eagan. It's a cliché, but true, his friends say: The 69-year-old farmer is not counting his chickens until they are hatched.
His legal fight has bounced around the state's court system since 2002, when his brother James McCarthy died before closing on a settlement agreement to sell 60 of the farm's 130 acres to a Lakeville developer.
As executor of his brother's estate and now as the owner of the entire property, McCarthy has engaged in a protracted legal battle with Tollefson Development Inc. to hang on to land that has been in his family for more than 160 years.
McCarthy declined to comment directly, but his attorney and friends say he is exhausted by the litigation and fearful of more attempts to take his land.
"He feels very strongly that the farm must be preserved as it was handed down to him," friend and local preservationist John Ward said. "Patrick's life is the farm, and the farm is his life."
McCarthy and Tollefson were slated to go to trial this week. Instead, a Dakota County judge dismissed the lawsuit.
Tollefson has 60 days to appeal the ruling. It would be the developer's third appeal. "While I'm sure (McCarthy) is pleased with this particular result, you can't blame him for not feeling too happy," McCarthy's attorney Rollin Crawford said. "And the clock is running on whether this will be appealed again."
Tollefson's attorney Chad Lemmon said no decision has been made on the appeal and he was surprised that the case didn't make it to trial.
"I believe that everyone just wants to get this resolved once and for all," he said. The farm's location - west of Lexington Avenue and north of Wescott Road - secures its status as prime real estate in the heart of the city. While developers long to build on it, preservationists believe it's essential to the city's Core Greenway, an expanse of forest and green space that stretches from Patrick Eagan Park to Lebanon Hills Regional Park. In 2003, Patrick McCarthy donated a conservation easement that covers 34 of the contested 60 acres to Dakota County in order to protect it from development. The county board also may purchase another easement on the McCarthy property through its farmland preservation program, program director Al Singer said.
"The court decision is encouraging," Singer said. "We're anxiously awaiting a final decision so that we can move forward with this very important project." "(McCarthy) has endured a lot of different things through this, and we'd like to see the right outcome," he added.
Those who know Patrick McCarthy say he is cash-poor and money-rich, and hope to help raise money for his legal costs. They worry that he could have to sell a piece of land just to pay his years of attorney fees.
The brothers owned the entire farm equally until 2000, when James McCarthy signed an agreement to carve out most of his share and sell 60 acres to Tollefson.
The issue of whether he knew what he was signing - and whether his signature was powerless without his brother's - is in dispute. Lemmon has denied that Tollefson misled James McCarthy.
When Patrick McCarthy refused to sell his portion, Tollefson sued James McCarthy to force him to get his brother to sign.
Tollefson and James McCarthy reached a settlement agreement in April 2002 to avoid trial: McCarthy would sell the 60 acres for $4.2 million.
But two months later, McCarthy was dead.
The district court concluded last fall that the settlement agreement was worthless because both parties mistakenly defined the property's borders. A judge then agreed to bring the case through the trial process all over again.
That case was dismissed by order of summary judgment July 19.