The topic of eminent domain found its way to the Pennington County Board of Commissioners during the March 28 county board meeting.
A delegation that included Marshall County resident Jim Stengrim appeared before the board Tuesday in response to a bill that overwhelmingly passed through the senate, 64-2 on Monday (March 27) and a separate bill that is working its way through the Minnesota House of Representatives. Stengrim, Brian Jadeke, Wally Diedrich and Loren Zutz presented commissioners with a sample support resolution that was approved by the Marshall County Board of Commissioners the previous week and was to be presented to commissioners in Roseau, Polk and Pennington counties last week.
The board unanimously tabled the support resolution, following a 20-minute discussion on its necessity.
If approved, the resolution would have stated that “the Pennnington County Board of Commissioners, on behalf of Pennington County, Minnesota, hereby fully supports and encourages the Minnesota House of Representative and Minnesota Senate, including Senator LeRoy Stumpf and Representatives Bernard Lieder and Maxine Penas, to take all actions necessary to pass legislation expressly prohibiting Watershed Districts from using condemnation proceedings to acquire land for natural resource enhancements, wildlife enhancements, government farms, or any other purpose, which is not a specific statutory purpose of watershed districts, as those purposes set forth and codified at Minnesota Statue 103D.201 (watershed district purposes), subdivision 2.”
“Right now, under the landowners bill of rights, not even the DNR has the right, or power to condemn land by eminent domain, Stengrim said. “We want to make it absolutely clear by passage of legislation that watershed districts are not now authorized and should not be authorized to condemn land for natural resource and wildlife enhancement.”
Stengrim and other landowners present at the meeting oppose the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers Watershed District (MSTRWD) use of eminent domain to condemn farm land for the $6.5 million Agassiz Valley Project. Within the project, farmland would be used as the location of a long dike, that would hold back snowmelt and rainfall that would typically end up in the Snake River and eventually flow through Warren on its way to the Red River.
Flood control is not what angers the Marshall County landowners. What angers them is that some of the 640 condemned acres would be used for wildlife enhancement and other acres would be used to generate income, through government farming. Stengrim said that eminent domain was used in lieu of negotiations. He said that he and other land owners were told that if they didn’t like the eminent domain final offer, they “could sue the watershed.”
Stengrim said he has spoken with Senator LeRoy Stumpf about the use of eminent domain in condemning land for projects. Stumpf, according to Stengrim, believes that eminent domain is something that should only be used for public use and not for economic development. Stengrim said he agrees with Stumpf’s thoughts, that there are practical uses of eminent domain.
“We’re not out there to stop counties from using eminent domain,” Stengrim said. “You guys need these rights – but there’s been an abuse of power. If they are truly doing it for a public use as the constitution states, there’s going to be no problem with it.”
Stengrim believes the new bill will not harm or hamper the county’s use of eminent domain for foreseen needs such as acquiring right-of-way for road improvements. Replying to a question from Commissioner Bob Carlson, Stengrim said he was unsure if the senate’s eminent domain legislation separated use for transportation from other areas.
Don Jensen, chairman of the Pennington County Board, sympathized with Stengrim, stating that he felt it was wrong to condemn farm land for wildlife enhancements or government farming. But he feels that limiting a governmental body’s ability to use eminent domain could eventually keep county governments from using eminent domain to serve a public need.
“I don’t disagree with you, I think that eminent domain was never intended to take land and make it for wildlife,” Jensen said. “I understand that, you understand that, but I think there are some people who feel there are exceptions to that. You start to wonder where is this going to stop. Are public roads going to be next? I know what you are trying to do here, but is it the wisest way to do it, to separate one or two things out?”
Discussion continued, but no action was taken. The support resolution was tabled until the April 11 Pennington County Board meeting.
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