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Crow Wing County to administer Wetland Conservation Act

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Crow Wing County Land Services Director Gary Griffin (left) talks to Commissioner Doug Houge about the Wetland Conservation Act at the committee of the whole meeting Tuesday, Sept. 17. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

Crow Wing County commissioners support a proposal to administer the Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act after the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District decided to stop.

In the spring, the district informed cities and townships under its Wetland Conservation Act jurisdiction that it would no longer handle the administration, causing some consternation.

“The Soil and Water board had voted to discontinue services for 2019. That kind of put the cities in a little of a predicament to figure out what they were going to do,” Land Services Director Gary Griffin told the county board at its Tuesday, Sept. 17, committee of the whole meeting.

The Wetland Conservation Act’s scope: Draining, filling and, in some cases, excavating in wetlands is prohibited unless the drain, fill or excavation activity is exempt, or wetlands are replaced by restoring or creating wetland areas of at least equal public value.

The county had administered the act for 28 townships (including unorganized territories), and Crosslake and Baxter, and the district had administered the act for all other cities, and Irondale and Crow Wing townships, from 2009 until the end of last year.

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“We did take on Irondale and Crow Wing townships, we are obligated to do so. We did continue with Baxter for 2019 because we had a previous arrangement with them,” Griffin explained at the information-only meeting.

In the wake of the district board’s decision, the administration of the act would need to be handled by the cities, and the county for any townships formerly administered by the district, unless those townships choose a different arrangement, according to state statute.

“We’ve always done the townships for free, and we did Baxter for free,” Griffin said of the past arrangement.

The Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District will continue handling formal enforcement of the Wetland Conservation Act violations as well as hearing wetland-related applications and other issues.

City officials signed resolutions in the summer requesting the county to take over the administration of the act beginning next year, and the issue was brought before the July committee of the whole that resulted in a board request to look into a proposed fee structure.

“We would definitely charge if we do this. We never had the idea of doing it for free. There’s no free lunch,” Griffin said of the proposed fees, which were based on other county fees for services requiring similar time and effort.

“For a wetland replacement plan (application), our current fee is $400, WSN would charge that applicant $1,000, we would be asking to raise that $100 next year to $500.”

Widseth Smith Nolting is an engineering, architecture, land surveying and environmental services firm, a private company that would do the majority of the administration of the act if the county did not, according to Griffin.

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“If WSN can provide those services, why are we undercutting them and doing it cheaper? … We’re in direct competition with them. Is that really what government is supposed to do?” Commissioner Paul Koering asked Griffin of the direct costs to customers.

Griffin replied to Koering: “If you own a company, you can charge whatever you want. We’re not trying to compete with them. We’re just saying this is what we really believe is reasonable.”

The county would charge cities a one-time annual administration fee for calls related to the Wetland Conservation Act that did not result in, for example, a formal application for exemption, which factors in the volume of related calls a city is expected to receive.

“I’m not saying we’re looking to drum up business, but at the end of the day, this would bring in about $19,000 of additional revenue,” Griffin told the commissioners.

Land services came to the committee of the whole with the recommendation the county should consider administering the Wetland Conservation Act for the entire county next year because of the benefits it provides to county residents.

“I think the biggest one to me is just like assessment of property, I can look at anybody in this county in the eye and say, ‘Your assessment is uniform, and I believe it’s pretty accurate because I know we do the whole county,’ the same thing with WACA,” Griffin said.

Other projected benefits of the county administering the act include better local coordination with the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, and increased capacity and structure for potential education and outreach opportunities to townships and cities about the act.

“I think there’s some real advantages in having it consistent throughout the county,” Commissioner Steve Barrows said. “I don’t think the fees are out of line. I think they’re very much in line, so I’m very supportive of this one.”

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A formal resolution about the county administering the Wetland Conservation Act will be proposed at the next county board meeting.

Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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