Nobles County’s buffer ordinance one step closer to approval
WORTHINGTON — Two weeks after Minnesota’s buffer law went into effect for landowners who farm along public waters, Nobles County Soil and Water Conservation District Manager John Shea reported Wednesday that 1,192 of 1,600 parcels in the county are compliant.
Another 390 parcels are in the process of becoming compliant, and landowners of the remaining 18 parcels have not contacted his office to report whether they have their buffers in place or not.
“The 18 parcels could be compliant. We don’t know; we haven’t been on site,” he added.
Shea’s update was provided to members of the Nobles County Planning Commission Wednesday evening during a public review on the final draft of the county’s ordinance regarding enforcement of the state law.
About half a dozen township officials attended the meeting, including four from Bloom Township.
“Just because people are compliant doesn’t mean they like it, because they don’t,” said Bloom Township Supervisor Kevin Schettler of the buffer law. “Some people have some real good language for it.”
Shea said he knows all too well what public sentiment is regarding buffers, but the law is the law.
Township officials were invited to the meeting to learn more about the ordinance, specifically how it will be enforced and how fines will be issued for non-compliance.
Nobles County commissioners had previously opted to model an ordinance drafted by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR). The board gave itself the responsibility of enforcing the law rather than BWSR, and identified penalties for being in violation.
Commissioner Bob Demuth Jr. said Wednesday night the board chose the minimum penalties for non-compliance.
The ordinance states the penalty for non-compliance will be $0 for the first 11 months after issuance of a Corrective Action Notice. Then, a minimum of $50 — not to exceed $200 per parcel per month — will be fined for the first 180 days following the grace period. If the landowner still remains out of compliance with the buffer law, the fine increases to a minimum of $200 — not to exceed $500 — per parcel per month for each month of non-compliance thereafter.
“What if the buffer law gets thrown out in court?” asked Bloom Township Chairman Jim Joens.
“Then there will be nothing to enforce,” responded Nobles County Attorney Kathleen Kusz.
Joens followed up with several additional questions, wondering if the SWCD has the right to trespass on lands to check compliance (Shea said he can go on any lands where cost-share projects are located), and what happens if a landowner doesn’t agree with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on whether a buffer is needed.
“I guess it’s the same if you don’t wear a seatbelt — you deal with enforcement,” Shea responded.
Shelly Onken, Bloom Township Treasurer, asked who would be enforcing the buffer law locally. Nobles County Planning and Zoning Administrator Kathy Henderschiedt said the SWCD will do compliance checks and report to the county for enforcement issues. If necessary, landowners who don’t comply with the law would ultimately have their case entered in the courts system. Those who don’t pay the fines could see the costs levied on their property taxes, added Kusz.
“Once this is passed, it’s an ordinance Nobles County has to follow,” Kusz said. “If we don’t follow enforcement, we might be subject to some penalties by the state.”
Before making a motion to approve the ordinance and advance it to the Nobles County Board for final action, Planning Commission member Brent Feikema said he is glad the buffer law is in place.
As a member of the Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water board of directors, he said, “We’re always looking for good water, and good quality water is hard to come by. Bad quality water has a high price to treat.”
While Joens said he’s for clean water, he’s skeptical buffers are the answer.
“Nobody knows 10 years from now if we gained anything,” he said. “I’m all for water quality, too, but what’s the next thing our governor or the state is going to do — cut all the tile off?”
“If we don’t do anything, then what?” responded Dewald Township Chairman Gary Brink. “We’ve got to try something.”