MADISON — The decision by the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners to block the sale of 80 acres of marginal farmland to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for conservation use was “arbitrary and capricious,” a district judge has determined.

In a ruling filed Monday, District Judge Thomas Van Hon found that the County Board acted outside of its authority under state statute when it blocked the sale in February 2019.

The decision represents the board’s “will and not its judgment,” stated the judge in the ruling. “Unless a valid local interest is threatened by a proposed sale, a county board must, as an agency of the state, approve those sales to the DNR that advance established state policies,” the judge stated in a memorandum accompanying the decision.

Phillip Sonstegard, who operates Jo’s Family Farms, brought the civil lawsuit against the county. Sonstegard and his family are pleased by the decision and hope they can move the sale forward, according to his attorney, Ron Frauenshuh Jr. of Ortonville.

If the sale is to occur, the DNR must now bring the matter to the Land Exchange Board for its approval, according to the ruling. The Land Exchange Board consists of the governor, state auditor and attorney general.

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The DNR has a purchase agreement on the property.

“The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources learned of the Minnesota District Court’s decision late yesterday (Monday). We are currently reviewing the ruling. We were not a party to the case, but look forward to further discussions with both the landowner and the county,” the DNR stated in response to an inquiry from the West Central Tribune.

Todd Patzer, a member of the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners, said he is disappointed by the ruling. He said the board members will be reviewing the county’s options with the county attorney at their next meeting.

The county's decision to block the sale garnered statewide attention. Patzer said he had even been contacted by people from other states about it. The case has at least helped generate conversations about the topic, said Patzer.

“Hopefully we will be able to address some of our concerns with the department (in) some ongoing conversations we will be having with them.

“This is another step in the process. I don’t think it ends all debate on the issue,” he added.

Frauenshuh said he believes the court’s ruling is an important one. It helps clarify the authority and duties that county boards have when lands are purchased for public conservation.

“It really does. It’s telling counties you have certain things you have to examine and you can’t go out in left field and make findings that aren’t supported by the facts,” said the plaintiff’s attorney.

The only other case that set precedent in the matter dates to 1980.

The 80-acre parcel offered for sale to the DNR adjoins an existing wildlife management area in Baxter Township.

The property owner and the DNR provided records showing the land was of marginal value for farming. Of the 80 acres, 71 were tillable, but only 54 of those acres could be farmed from 2015 to 2020, and soybean yields were 73 percent of the county average,

In arguments for blocking 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.”

Judge Van Hon agreed that the county had legitimate reasons for concerns, pointing to statements by the Board of Commissioners about the county’s declining population and the belief that private lands have more economic value than public lands to the county.

“Declining population and the transfer of land from farm production to conservation use unquestionably have an effect on the local citizens and the local economy. But banning the transfer of all agricultural property from private ownership to conservation purposes is not a policy determination afforded to counties under the statute,” stated the judge.

The county had lamented that funding from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment had led to a “massive influx” of funding to purchase lands, and that Lac qui Parle County in particular had more land in conservation as a result.

As of 2018, the DNR owned 4.6 percent of the county land base, as compared to 2.2 percent statewide. Since 2000, the DNR has added an average of 128 acres per year for conservation purposes in the county.

The judge stated that the decision of whether it is "good policy to place land into conservation programs does not belong to the county.” He noted that allowing counties to block the sale here based on the board's contention that there is too much land in conservation is tantamount to giving counties “unlimited veto power,” and that is not intended by state statute.

“Nobody is really a winner,” said Frauenshuh, attorney for the plaintiff. ”We understand what the county is saying. We disagree with the county on the factors that they are required to look at. We understand their position. It’s good that the court reached this decision in our favor.”

Along with the Sonstegard property, the County Board had also blocked the acquisition of 158 acres in Mehurin Township to be adjoined to the Gollnick Wildlife Management Area. The property contains native prairie. The landowner did not participate in the lawsuit, but the ruling opens up the possibility that the DNR could acquire both of the properties it originally sought.