Buffer compliance still not 100%
Soil and Water Conservation Districts in area continue to work with landowners to get vegetative buffers in place along public water courses.
REGIONAL — More than two years after Minnesota’s buffer law was implemented, requiring landowners to plant 50-foot perennial buffers along lakes, rivers and streams, and 16.5-foot buffers along public ditch systems, hundreds of landowners in the southwest corner of the state remain out of compliance.
The lack of implemented filter strips in many instances can be chalked up to the weather — the last two growing seasons have been wet, with less than ideal conditions to plant the perennial vegetation required to comply with the 2015 law. Another possibility is that some don’t believe the buffer law should have been implemented in the first place, seeing it as government overreach.
With cleaner water at the root of the law, Nobles County Soil and Water District Conservationist John Shea has long said the law should be called a clean water law instead of a buffer law.
“It’s the cheapest and easiest way to take a step in the right direction,” Shea said. “The same thing that makes our corn grow makes our algae grow — it just gets in the wrong spot.”
“It’s helping to prevent erosion and runoff pollution,” added Nobles County Environmental Services Manager Mark Koster.
Vegetative buffers along lakes, rivers, streams and public ditches help to filter out phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment from water that flows over the landscape.
As of this month, Nobles County reports just 2% of parcels required to have buffers in place by Nov. 1 as not yet in compliance. It’s a similar scenario in surrounding counties.
Soon, however, non-compliant landowners in Nobles County will receive a Corrective Action Notice, telling them they must get the buffers installed within 11 months to be compliant or face fines. The letter, modeled after the one used in Mower County, was drafted by Nobles County Environmental Services and is currently under review by the county attorney.
“We’re hoping to send the letters out later this year or in early January,” Koster said.
The notices state landowners will be fined $50 per month, per parcel, for the first six months they remain out of compliance with the law. If after six months they remain non-compliant, the fine increases to $200 per parcel per month.
Since the Soil and Water Conservation Districts are tasked with monitoring compliance, checks will be performed annually to ensure the buffers are still in place. Individuals previously cited for violating the law who then return their land to non-compliance face penalties of $50 per parcel per day for the first six months, and $200 per parcel per day after six months and until compliance is reached.
As of yet, none of the six counties in far southwest Minnesota have reached the point in which fines will be issued.
Hannah Herzfeld, resource technician at Cottonwood County SWCD said letters were sent to non-compliant landowners in April, so their 11-month deadline is in March.
“We know March will be a difficult time to get things in, so I anticipate we’ll get extensions,” she said. “The county really doesn’t want to fine anyone, and neither do we.”
As of this month, Cottonwood County has just 10 landowners who are non-compliant with the buffer law.
“On a whole, we had a pretty good working relationship with all people,” Herzfeld said. “Most people, I think, were pretty understanding.”
In Pipestone County, enforcement letters will be mailed out in January, according to SWCD Technician Nicole Schwebach. She said quite a few landowners there couldn’t get buffers planted because it was too wet.
“I’m personally aware of only two landowners who are deliberately out of compliance with the buffer law,” Schwebach said. “There may be more.”
There are still a number of parcels in Pipestone County with unknown compliance status, and those will be counted as non-compliant until Schwebach is told otherwise.
Jackson, Murray and Rock county SWCDs continue to work with landowners there to get buffers seeded or alternative practices in place. All three counties have at least 98% compliance with the law.
In 2015, the state began providing individual counties with funds to do enforcement of the buffer law. In Nobles County, the fund has been built up to $500,000, noted Shea.
“With that money we can do anything that involves buffers — it could be paying for somebody’s seed or paying (county) commissioners to sit through a hearing because someone is non-compliant,” Shea said. “That money could go real quick if (the county has) to hire a lawyer.”
District 22 Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, has frequently spoken against the state’s buffer law, saying the law has taken private property from landowners without compensation.
“There still is no plan as far as paying the people who have lost property to the buffer strip,” Weber said earlier this week, adding that he believes the buffers really aren’t necessary in many areas.
“In some areas, they do work out well,” he said. “The problem is when you mandate something to go in unilaterally, at the end of the day you wind up with that scenario — where some places it works and some places it doesn’t.
“I’m still not overly happy (with the law), because at the end of the day we still have an illegal taking of people’s property,” Weber said.
Weber, a licensed real estate broker and owner of a land management business, said he conducted an appraisal in the spring of 2018 on one parcel where nearly five acres was taken out of production due to the required buffers. The landowner did not get the acres re-enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, so Weber said property was devalued by $20,000 to $25,000.
“I do believe at the end of the day, some of the people who went in early were able to get some of those things done,” Weber acknowledged. “There’s still a lot of situations out there whereby people have lost value on their property and, quite frankly, at the end of the day, we have to make sure the tax authorities are taxing it appropriately, too.
“If they weren’t able to get it enrolled in CRP and receive an amount comparable to cash rent, their value is not there and they should not be taxed on a higher value than what they have,” he added.
Since the original bill was authorized, Weber has worked on legislation to compensate landowners for lost acres, without success.
“If we do get to a point where people are willing to go ahead and do some type of compensation for this, then we do need to figure out, No. 1, how we’re going to come up with the money for that, too,” Weber said.
“I’m not sure the current majority in the House has any stomach for it, and I doubt at the end of the day the governor does either,” he added.