MADISON — No middle ground was found in a dispute over public lands in Lac qui Parle County and the issue will be decided by a district court judge.

The civil lawsuit brought against Lac qui Parle County by a landowner seeking to sell an 80-acre parcel of land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was taken under advisement by District Judge Thomas Van Hon. He received final written arguments from the two sides this month.

Phillip Sonstegard, 77, of Jo’s Family Farms, filed the lawsuit after the commissioners voted 4-1 in February 2019 not to certify the sale of an 80-acre parcel of land he owns in Baxter Township to the DNR. Sonstegard and the DNR argued that the land was marginal and not profitable for farming, and that its best use was as conservation land and recreation as part of a wildlife management area open to hunting.

Rick Stulz, Lac qui Parle County Attorney, said there had been discussions about a possible settlement but no middle ground was found. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen had publicly expressed her hope earlier this year for a resolution.

In the decision to block the sale, the County Board of Commissioners expressed concerns about what members termed the “perceived escalating rate of acquisitions” of lands by the DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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The commissioners cited the loss of lands for agriculture. They noted that so-called “marginal” land could be very attractive to young farmers unable to afford top-quality land.

The commissioners also expressed concerns about the loss of property tax from the land, but acknowledged that payments in of taxes from the state for its use as conservation lands would likely exceed the tax revenues from it.

In asking the commissioners to approve the sale, the DNR cited the land’s importance to protect wetlands and benefit water quality, to provide habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities.

The DNR pointed out that 2 percent of the county’s land base is owned by the state for conservation, and that land acquisitions have occurred only at an average rate of 129 acres per year since 2000. It would take 39 years to increase the land base in state ownership by 1 percent.

The rate of acquisition has actually declined to 94 acres per year since approval of the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment in 2000. The commissioners had expressed concerns that the funds made available by the Legacy Amendment threatened to tip the balance between conservation and private land ownership in the county, according to briefs filed in the case.

Plaintiff’s attorney Ron Frauenshuh Jr., of Ortonville, alleges in the lawsuit that the decision to deny the sale was “arbitrary and capricious,” and consequently in violation of a state statute allowing county boards to act on the sale of private lands to the state and federal governments. The acquisition of private lands is not occurring as perceived by the commissioners, the attorney argued in his briefs to the court. The commissioners are also mistaken to consider the land for farming when both current owner Sonstegard and a previous owner have made it clear that the land was not profitable for agricultural use, according to the plaintiff.

The lawsuit contends that a 1980 Minnesota Supreme Court decision known as Kasch indicated that counties are to support state policy of acquiring and preserving wetlands and wildlife lands. The commissioners “only addressed the county’s perceived harms” and did not meet the requirements of the law to support the state’s objectives, according to the plaintiff.

The plaintiff also charges that there are fundamental, constitutional issues at stake. The commissioners do not have the authority to veto a land sale. That is the exclusive power of the executive branch. Also, the commissioners cannot take away the right of a property owner to enter into a contract and sell property to a buyer of his or her choice.

County Attorney Stulz said it is clear that the state statute requires the DNR to obtain the consent of the local county board when acquiring property within a county. The question comes down to what are valid reasons for the board to approve or disapprove a request, the attorney told the West Central Tribune in an email. If the board is simply to “rubber stamp” a request, there is no point in having the process, he said.

The 1980 case offered some indication of what reasons allow a board to oppose a sale. The court indicated at the time that more than the question of “whether the land is good for conservation” can be considered, according to the attorney. He cited the commissioners’ concerns about the loss of lands to agriculture, the tax base and other issues as appropriate for their consideration.

Since there was no action in the 1980 case and no formal pronouncement from the court specifying the valid reasons to oppose a sale, it’s not clear how they may apply in this recent case.

Stulz said he believes the current dispute shows a need for the Legislature to review the process and decide whether or not it is necessary.