Crow Wing County rebuffs buffer enforcement
It appears buffer law enforcement in Crow Wing County will remain the domain of St. Paul. County commissioners Tuesday decisively rejected the idea of assuming local control of the law, which requires 50-foot vegetative buffers along most public ...
It appears buffer law enforcement in Crow Wing County will remain the domain of St. Paul.
County commissioners Tuesday decisively rejected the idea of assuming local control of the law, which requires 50-foot vegetative buffers along most public waters in the state. The intent of the law is to provide environmental protection of water by reducing polluting runoff, although its extent and implementation remains a contentious issue for some county officials and state legislators.
Land Services Director Gary Griffin asked commissioners at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday whether they would consider local enforcement of the law. Griffin said the Legislature allocated funds to counties or watershed districts to enforce at the local level-a previous sticking point for the county board. Crow Wing County would receive $40,000 in 2017 and $50,000 in 2018.
"I believe we can enforce this law somewhat minimally," Griffin said. "There would be some staff hours, but we wouldn't have to hire anybody. ... I believe it would benefit the bottom line of Crow Wing County."
Commissioner Rosemary Franzen asked what would happen if funding did not continue in the future.
"If the funding runs out, can we go back and tell the state we don't want to do it?" Franzen asked.
Griffin said he assumed they could by adopting a resolution they would no longer enforce the state law-leaving it to the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.
County Administrator Tim Houle said this was asking Griffin to speculate on the future.
"They could cut the funding," Houle said. "They could put in a requirement that we do it."
Commissioner Paul Thiede said this was an argument against the county controlling enforcement.
"I've been opposed to this because that's my concern," Thiede said. "If we agree to it, and then all of a sudden we change the ground rules."
Thiede said he'd prefer the state "work the bugs out" before the county volunteered to take control of enforcement.
Commissioner Paul Koering said he opposed county land services assuming responsibility because he was opposed to the law in its entirety.
"I just don't agree with the law, period," Koering said, adding it injects more government into people's lives. "Here's somebody coming out and walking on a farmer's land out there and telling them how to manage their land. Most of these farmers, they are environmentalists. They are managing their property."
Griffin said that would happen whether the county assumed control or not.
"Do you want somebody from land services, or do you want somebody to come from St. Paul?" Griffin said.
"I'd rather have somebody from St. Paul," Koering said. "I just fundamentally disagree with the law."
Gary asked whether anyone wished to speak in favor of assuming local control. Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom was the only present commissioner yet to voice an opinion, and she remained silent.
"I have my direction, then," Griffin said.
Crow Wing stands alone
Of the seven surrounding counties, Crow Wing County is the only one deferring to the state for enforcement of the buffer law.
Representatives from Aitkin, Mille Lacs, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties confirmed they would opt in to local enforcement. The Cass County Board was set to vote on the matter Tuesday night, although Cass County Administrator Josh Stevenson said staff recommended the board to accept control. Stevenson said the reasoning was Cass County staff could work with a landowner to gain compliance, while state enforcement may be less flexible.
"If BWSR took the approach of, we're going to fine you until you're in compliance, versus working with you to get compliance ... I could see the potential of (constituents) asking, 'Why didn't you guys take this over? You've got a good track record of working toward compliance on other issues,'" Stevenson said.
Deana Malone, planning and zoning administrator for Wadena County, expressed a similar sentiment.
"We wanted to try to keep that enforcement at the local level," Malone said. "We're not a big county. A lot of these folks are people we know or somebody knows, and we want to have an opportunity to work with them to gain compliance."
Malone added based on estimates completed by soil and water conservation districts throughout the state, Wadena County already has a high compliance rate with the law. This means enforcement would not be a huge issue, she said.
Amy Kowalzek, Morrison County land services director, said maintaining local control was a priority of the county board, noting its involvement with feedlot management and food, beverage and lodging licensing.
"That was the biggest driver for our county board to accept the jurisdiction, because they certainly like that local connection that people are able to have rather than dealing with a state agency down in St. Paul," Kowalzek said.
Kowalzek said the funding would be used to hire a new staff member in Morrison County dedicated to riparian work, including that required to enforce the buffer law.
"We wouldn't have considered it if funding didn't come with it," Kowalzek said. "The workload that our office has now, we couldn't support another program with the staff and do it well."
Kowalzek said BWSR told the county they could opt out of enforcement in the future, and the longevity of the new position was contingent on continued funding from the state.
Aitkin County also intended to hire a half-time staff person with the funding, said Terry Neff, environmental services director.
Rod Erickson, Todd County Board chairperson, said his understanding was the preference for local control drove his board's 5-0 decision.
"It sure sounds like it's going to be a pretty popular thing to keep it local," Erickson said. He said a staff member who attended a recent conference noted most county representatives raised their hands when asked whether they intended to enforce locally.
Mille Lacs County Administrator Pat Oman said the board was not comfortable assuming control without funding, but the funding increased comfort with enforcing the law.