MADISON — Just a little over one year after it began, the public lands dispute in Lac qui Parle County appears headed to a resolution. A settlement is expected in a civil lawsuit over one of the land parcels.
In February 2019, the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to not certify the purchase of two properties by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources from willing landowners.
The DNR sought to purchase an 80-acre parcel in Baxter Township and a 158-acre parcel in Mehurin Township and add each to wildlife management areas adjacent to them.
Phil Sonstegard, of Jo’s Family Farms, and owner of the Baxter Township property, filed a civil lawsuit Dec. 9 in Lac qui Parle County District Court, challenging the county’s action. The suit argues the County Board exceeded its discretion in not allowing the sale. The board looked only at the goals of the county and not those of the state, which it is obligated to do, according to the lawsuit.
Sonstegard, 76, told the West Central Tribune that the land is best used for wildlife habitat. It includes a collection of small, irregular fields with 60 to 70 acres of tillable acres. It is not feasible to drain them.
He said the economic feasibility of farming the land “is between slim and none.” He’s at a point that he wants to put his estate in order and complete the land sale, and does not believe the county should be able to block the sale.
“We believe in the right to be able to buy and sell land,” said Sonstegard. “We’re in America, not in the Ukraine. We’re not in Russia.”
“Worse than frustrated” is how he describes his feelings about being in the middle of the dispute involving the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
“We want to work with the DNR and local board and try to get the issue resolved,” Sonstegard said.
That might just happen in short order. Attorney Ron Frauenshuh Jr., of Ortonville, who represents Sonstegard in the civil lawsuit against Lac qui Parle County, told the West Central Tribune that he is optimistic that a settlement will soon be reached.
But the attorney said a settlement will only leave unanswered the underlying questions in the case. The state statute is not clear as to the discretion counties actually have in blocking the sale of land for public use, and whether or not there are guidelines to apply.
Lac qui Parle County Attorney Rick Stulz said the law clearly states that the DNR must obtain the consent of a local county board when acquiring property. The question, he agreed, is what discretion a county board has in approving or denying a request.
The only prior case law in the matter is not really clear on what guidelines a county board must follow, the county attorney said.
Stulz pointed out that the Lac qui Parle County Board has been questioning DNR land purchases based on its desire that land stay in private hands. When the board made its decision to deny the sales, the commissioners said they did not believe it was in the long-term best economic interest of the county to transfer more land from private to public ownership.
According to information provided at that meeting, 94 percent of the county land base is in private ownership and 4 percent in public ownership by the state and 2 percent by the federal government.
Frauenshuh said he understands the challenge counties face when lands are removed from the tax base. To compensate for the tax loss, counties receive payments in lieu of taxes from the state for public lands, but that doesn’t necessarily make up for the loss of economic activity that might occur if a family lived on it, he said.
The Lac qui Parle County case raises the issue: What kind of power should counties have to intercede in the sale of land by a willing seller?
“It’s really a political issue that needs to be decided by the Legislature,” Frauenshuh said. He asked: Where is the boundary, how much power should the local government have to stop a land sale?
“The nice thing about this case is it’s a chance to air the issue. It’s not the county. It’s not Sonstegard. It’s the state. The Legislature has to give better guidance,” he said.
The DNR is hoping to reach a long-term resolution with the county on the land dispute. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen made it a point earlier this year at the annual Roundtable gathering hosted by the agency to voice her desire for a resolution.
County Attorney Stulz said representatives of the DNR and the County Board have held meetings. The commissioners are hopeful that a resolution will be found.
Whether the Legislature will address the issue this session is not clear. There have been identical bills introduced in the House and Senate that would allow counties to adopt a “no net increase” policy against the acquisition of additional land by the state within their boundaries. The bills have been referred to the respective natural resource committees in the chambers.