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Cass County Board: Joint meeting set to review proposed zoning changes

BACKUS — Cass County Planning Commission and County Board will hold a joint work session March 12 at the land department in Backus to review proposed zoning changes regarding resorts and extractive land uses, such as gravel pits.

The time for the meeting is expected to be either 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. and will be posted on the county website,, closer to the meeting date. Proposed revisions also will be posted on the website.

After that work session, public hearings will follow before the planning commission, then before the county board prior to adoption.

Paula West, Leech Lake Watershed Foundation executive director, updated the board Tuesday on conservation easements being filed in the county.

Cass first identified 55 lakes in the county that had sensitive habitat along the shoreline, then narrowed that down to 19 focus lakes to try to encourage landowners to dedicate their properties to conservation easements, West said.

The 19 lakes contain 183 miles of sensitive shoreline, she said. While some southern Cass lakes had lower remaining portions of sensitive areas like Washburn (24 percent), Sylvan (39 percent) and Roosevelt (30 percent), some of the north and central lakes were almost 50 percent. Those include Ten Mile (46 percent), Leech (47 percent) and Ada (48 percent).

Grant money from the state Board of Water and Soil Resources, the 3/8 percent environmental dedicated sales tax and lottery receipts have helped pay for studies to determine where sensitive shoreline exists and to pay costs of processing and monitoring conservation easements, West reported.

In a conservation easement, owners give up future development rights but retain ownership. The land remains taxable. The goal is to help protect water quality, West said.

Cass County holds some of the easements. Minnesota Land Trust holds others here. Both will monitor to ensure future use conforms with the easement agreements current land owners are signing.

Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk, while praising the program concept, asked how the county will know when a tipping point comes when the county’s potential loss of future tax revenue or neighbors’ potential loss property value loss might outweigh the benefit of protecting lakes.

It is like asking, “How much farm land do we turn into rural residential,” Commissioner Jim Dowson suggested.

Gaalswyk said the conservation easements could become both a zoning and a taxing issue in the future.

Environmental Services Director John Ringle said the number of conservation easements issued so far is such a small percentage of the total lakeshore in Cass and is far from becoming an issue yet.

If the Legislature created a separate taxing rate class for property under conservation easements, then it could become an issue, Administrator Robert Yochum suggested.

Landowners on the 19 identified lakes likely will receive a personal mailing to ask whether any of them are interested in taking advantage of conservation easement funding currently available, Ringle said. He added that it costs about $15,000 to process legal documents for an easement.

On Tuesday the board approved another easement for 5.8 acres with 206 feet of shoreline along a channel connected to Washburn Lake. This site is adjacent to another easement approved earlier.

In a separate move for conservation easements, Cass Soil and Water Conservation District is partnering with Ducks Unlimited, Board of Soil and Water Resources and DNR to protect shoreline habitat on some wild rice lakes.

Those lakes identified in Cass include Brockway, Farnham, Laura, Lizotte, Lower Hand, Rice east of Pequot Lakes and Rice near Pillager. BWSR will hold these easements.

Landowners and parcels that are selected for funding will be paid 60 percent of the estimated market value of the land tract in this wild rice preservation program. Funding comes from the 3/8 percent sales tax.

In a report from Cass County Soil and Water Conservation District, 90 property owners have received or will by the end of 2013 $1,029,317 to restore their shoreline to natural vegetation to prevent runoff from running into lakes.

This covers 9,492 lineal feet of shoreline in a program begun in 2008.

Minnesota Legislature in 2011 restructured the state nursery program at CC Andrews State Nursery and Badoura State Nursery (Backus), eliminating the nurseries’ ability to sell tree seedlings to the general public as of 2013 and limiting sales only for research or use on public or private conservation lands.

An amendment has been proposed this session to allow the state nurseries to allow Soil and Water Conservation Districts to obtain seedlings from Badoura and Andrews for planting on private or public lands for conservation projects.

Badoura was established in 1929 and Andrews in 1938, according to John Wallin, president of the Brainerd Chapter of Minnesota Forestry Association. In 2009, Badoura sold its one billionth tree seedling.

He notes this change affects tree farmers as well as smaller property owners and lake associations.

Cass Environmental Services Department has obtained an $82,696.50 surface water assessment grant for Leech Lake Watershed and Pine River Watershed to collect baseline data on lakes that do not have minimum data sets. RMB Environmental Labs in Detroit Lakes will test water samples for lakes in these watersheds.

Cass County Board will hold a public hearing at 10 a.m. March 20 at the land department in Backus on a proposal to designate Deep Portage Conservation Reserve as an Area with Limitations.

Four townships that overlap Deep Portage have endorsed the proposal.