County donates land instead of paying fine

Published 6:33 am Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mower County has agreed to donate 33.1 acres of land to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources instead of paying a $31,000 penalty for alleged stormwater violations during a ditch repair project.

The deal completes what County Coordinator Craig Oscarson described as a three-way swap.

“It’s just like all the stars aligned,” he said. “The DNR wanted it. We didn’t want it, because by keeping it we had to maintain it.”

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The agreement is between the county, the project’s contractor, Freeborn Construction Inc. of Albert Lea, and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The fine pertains to an incident that occurred between 2005 and 2006 when the county repaired Judicial Ditch 1 in Bennington Township. A state permit authorized for tree removal and clearing of the ditch, and Oscarson said the project was to remove brush and overgrown trees and grade the ditch to its official slope.

The alleged storm water violations are focused on the lack of cover to exposed slopes of the ditch, which allowed soil to erode into the stream during the rainfall, according to the MPCA. Oscarson said the county used an old method of stabilizing the ground slope by seeding the slopes and installing rock check dams to prevent runoff, but the seeds didn’t take because of lack of rain. According to Oscarson, the MPCA had stated that method may or may not work, but didn’t inform the county until afterward that method hadn’t worked.

The MPCA, which issues and oversees stormwater permits for construction projects, had advised the county of the need to stabilize the slopes before issuing the project permit.

The project to the drainage ditch included a two-mile portion of the South Branch of the Root River, a section of the river that’s considered the headwaters of the Root River.

The MPCA lists the river as impaired for turbidity, meaning that sediment (soil) and other particles make the water too cloudy to meet state water quality standards.

Rather than paying a $31,000 penalty, county officials proposed the donation of the 33.1 acres of land adjacent to the Cedar River.

The 33.1 acres of land donated to the DNR was originally purchased through a flood buyout program. Part of that purchase stipulated that the land had to remain a green space and that property could not be built on the land.

The flood mitigation rules stipulate the land bought through the program needs to stay in public hands. Oscarson said the county had looked into leasing the land to deer hunters, which would have earned the money to pay the fine, but the land would have been in limited public hands.

“The general public is going to benefit long term from this. It will be a nice 30 acre piece of property for people who want to experience the river,” he said.

The DNR has looked into developing a canoe landing on a portion of the land, and some of the land is old farm land that could be set aside as natural prairie land, Oscarson said.

Had the county paid the fine, the money would have come from the ditch board and could have been assessed back to the benefiting properties of the land agreement. It wouldn’t have been a countywide fine.

“It worked out good; it was a not cost deal for the tax payers,” Oscarson said. “It keeps some valuable public property in the public hands, albeit in the state. The MCPA’s happy, the DNR’s happy and the county’s happy. It was a good deal.”

The MPCA uses stipulation agreements to achieve compliance with environmental laws. The MPCA looks at the seriousness of the violation, the environmental effects and the violator’s enforcement history into account when calculating penalties.

The MPCA takes into account the seriousness of the violation, its effect on the environment and the violator’s enforcement history when calculating penalties.