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Minnesota Land Exchange Board approves Lac qui Parle County land sale over county's opposition

The Land Exchange Board cited the right of property owners to sell their land to willing buyers as the principle deciding their votes. Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julie Blaha emphasized that they appreciated the concerns raised by Lac qui Parle County and the governor said the issues need to be aired going forward.

Baxter T6 Aerial Map (1)10241024_1.jpg
This map shows the Sonstegard property — outlined in white — that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will purchase and make part of the Baxter Wildlife Management Area — indicated by yellow — in Lac qui Parle County. Submitted
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ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Land Exchange Board , over the opposition of Lac qui Parle County , approved the sale of 80 acres of land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for conservation.

The unanimous vote Wednesday by Gov. Tim Walz , Attorney General Keith Ellison and State Auditor Julie Blaha allows Phillip Sonstegard to sell 80 acres of his land in Baxter Township in Lac qui Parle County to the DNR. The land will become part of the Baxter Wildlife Management Area , which it borders.

Sonstegard emphasized to the board that the primary tenet of land ownership in this country is the right to transfer property, and he made it clear that it was his desire to sell the land to the DNR.

Before casting their votes, the three board members said the issue of the landowner’s right was the deciding factor for them.

“The landowner is the principal priority in this,” said Gov. Walz while also voicing his appreciation for the concerns raised by Lac qui Parle County.

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The DNR and Sonstegard reached an agreement on the land’s sale in 2018, but the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners voted in February 2019 to block the sale. Sonstegard appealed the County Board’s decision in Lac qui Parle County District Court, and won a ruling allowing him to bring the matter to the state Land Exchange Board .

This is the first time the DNR has sought the state board’s approval to purchase a property, Jess Richards, assistant commissioner of the DNR for Ecological and Water Resources and the Lands and Minerals Division, told the board.

“The citizens of Lac qui Parle County understand the value of conservation,” Todd Patzer, a member of the County Board of Commissioners, told the state land board.

But Patzer said the county currently has 15 percent of its land in conservation, and citizens in the county are overwhelmingly concerned about protecting agricultural land for its economic importance. An acre of recreational land provides only a tiny fraction of the economic benefits as compared to agriculture, he said.

Recently elected president of the Minnesota Association of Counties , Patzer said rural residents do not feel their voices are being heard. He also expressed his concerns about the cumulative effect of seeing land taken out of agricultural production for recreational use

“We cannot slowly become just a place of recreation and conservation, a place to be enjoyed on a few nice Saturdays in the fall,” said Patzer.

The county will receive an estimated $1,945.50 per year in payment in lieu of taxes from the state for the property, as compared to property taxes of $1,556. Patzer challenged the DNR’s position that the county is not negatively affected financially by the acquisition. It's not just taxes. He pointed to the revenues that the land would generate as agricultural land, and the importance of the agricultural economy over that of recreation.

“With the exception of a guide business or two, there is not a single business in Lac qui Parle County that is wholly sustained by hunting or tourism, while nearly every business is dependent on the ag economy,” he said.

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Patzer said Sonstegard had other options than to sell to the DNR. “Farmland is in demand and if he wanted to, Mr. Sonstegard could rent or sell this property to a private owner or farmer.”

Patzer also suggested that the price offered by the DNR for the land is substantially above the local market. If that is true, he said: “we should be asking why.”

Sonstegard said he had one call from a farmer interested in the property. The interested party made an offer of $100 an acre, and explained that it was not the kind of land they liked to farm, Sonstegard told the board. It is broken into different fields and much of the land is often too wet.

The land had an estimated market value of $259,400 in 2018. Richards told the board that the DNR is allowed to purchase only according to a land's appraised value based on the estimated market value.

Lac qui Parle County resident Anne Borgendale, who lives two miles from the Baxter Wildlife Management Area, spoke in favor of the land sale to the DNR. She told the board that she and others in the county believe the county benefits by a mix of conservation and agriculture.

The vast majority of the county’s land base — 89 percent in 2017 — is in agricultural use, and very little remains of the native habitat, she said. The access to outdoors and the natural environment benefits those who do not own land in the county, while providing water quality and other benefits to all residents, she said.

Borgendale told the board there are far bigger factors at work causing the population decline and changes in her rural county.

“It’s not just from the state and federal governments taking land,” she said.

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A host of conservation organizations in the state, including Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, joined in urging the state board to support the land purchase.

Greg Kvale, board member of the Minnesota chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the DNR left it to Sonstegard to take the matter to District Court and the Land Exchange Board. When county boards reject a land sale, the DNR should bring the matter directly to the Land Exchange Board and not place the financial and psychological burden of bringing a contentious issue forward on the landowner, he said.

Walz and board members said they anticipate other issues like this to come forward. This case served as a proxy for a lot of other issues, from shifting demographics to changes in our economy and way of life, the governor said. He also acknowledged Patzer’s concerns that rural residents are not being heard, and urged the DNR to engage with residents “in a way they feel heard.”

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