MADISON — Two years ago this February, the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners denied a request by Phillip Sonstegard to sell 80 acres of land in Baxter Township to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Sonstegard subsequently filed a civil lawsuit against the county for denying his right as a private landowner to sell his property to a party of his choosing. District Judge Thomas Van Hon held a brief hearing Jan. 27 as the parties in the lawsuit stipulated to the final facts for his deliberation.
The district judge will now be ruling on whether the reasons stated by the County Board of Commissioners in denying the sale were “invalid,” or if their disapproval was “arbitrary or capricious.”
Cases challenging the sale of lands for conservation use are rare: Court filings by the parties acknowledge as much by pointing to a lone case for guidance, but it is one where no actual judicial action was taken.
Sonstegard is represented by attorney Ronald Frauenshuh Jr., of Ortonville. They argue that the land he wants to sell has been unprofitable for farming purposes. They point to his experience as well as that of a previous owner of the property as to its marginal value for farming.
The land borders an existing state wildlife management area. The DNR wants to include the land and its wetlands as part of that management area. The DNR cites the land’s importance to protect wetlands and benefit water quality, to provide habitat for wildlife and recreational opportunities.
In Lac qui Parle County denying the sale, County Attorney Rick Stulz stated that there has been “growing concern in the county regarding the perceived escalating rate of acquisitions and corresponding reduction of the productive agriculture acres resulting from acquisitions as well as other conservation programs by state and federal agencies.”
According to information presented to the county by the DNR, 94 percent of the county land base is in private ownership and 4 percent in public ownership by the state and 2 percent by the federal government.
The county attorney points out that acquisition of lands for which the county receives payments in lieu of taxes has grown by 1,896 acres since 2008 to a total of 11,596 acres. The commissioners expressed concerns about the loss of the tax base when lands change from private to public ownership, and argue that private lands generate more overall economic benefits to the county than public lands.
In response, the plaintiff argues that payments in lieu of taxes more than compensate the county for the losses of taxes. Frauenshuh points out that the expected annual payment in lieu of taxes on the property would be $1,945.50, as compared to $1,556 in taxes paid in 2018.
In denying the sale, the commissioners state that they believe the loss of private lands to public ownership contributes to a loss of population in the county.
They also state that there is the perception that public lands cannot revert to private ownership, and that they believe the public opposes this acquisition by the DNR.
Both parties acknowledge one major point, that being the right of private landowners to sell to parties of their choosing. The commissioners noted that previous commissioners have deferred to state acquisitions in the past due to their belief that right of private landowners is the most important issue. They denied this sale on Feb. 19, 2019, on a 4-1 vote, with the dissenting commissioner expressing that concern.
Judge Van Hon will be making his decision based on the facts now stipulated to by the two parties. A decision is expected within 90 days.