Watershed board approves step toward acquiring property

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Citing water quality improvements and wetland protection, the Shell Rock River Watershed District board on Tuesday approved an amended option agreement for a property acquisition opposed by surrounding landowners.

Nine community members, including several property owners, township representatives from Manchester and Pickerel Lake and former state Rep. Dan Dorman addressed the board about safety, fiscal, conservation, property maintenance and transparency concerns with an approximately 85-acre parcel of land that includes a portion of Church Lake and extends to the west of the water body. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Manager Jeanine Vorland spoke in support of the project.

The Shell Rock River Watershed District has already entered into an option agreement with the private landowners, meaning it has the opportunity to purchase the land but has not already done so, on a large portion of the property. Tuesday’s vote added between six and seven acres to that property in a move that would increase access to the land via 710th Avenue, which borders the property’s west edge.

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The grant source requires the property to be turned over for public enjoyment and benefit once the Watershed District completes its projects, Watershed District program/project manager Courtney Phillips said at the meeting, reading portions from a letter published as a column Administrator Andy Henschel submitted to the Albert Lea Tribune. Landowner concern focuses on this transition, as they say handing the property to the DNR to turn the parcel into a Wildlife Management Area would allow public hunting and could become a site for trash-dumping.

The project fits in the scope of the District Water Plan, Phillips said, including in preserving existing rural and urban wetlands and encouraging restoration and enhancement — which Phillips also noted fits into the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council’s vision for projects it funds — conserving topsoil in the Watershed District and holding soil to the land, preserving remaining oak woodland and wet and upland prairie plant communities and more. The wetland condition would be improved, and farmland would be replaced with native prairie and pollinator plantings.

Additionally, while the wetlands and shoreline are partially protected by state law and local ordinance, they are not protected in whole, she said.

But Holly Karsjens, whose property is east of the amended parcel directly across 710th Avenue, told the Shell Rock River Watershed District board Tuesday that sometimes, when people think they are doing what is best for everyone, they do not see the adverse effects on the peripheral.

“Sometimes we get greater good tunnel vision,” Karsjens said.

She told the board it had been made clear that her No. 1 concern of safety was “tossed aside” and that there is no risk to landowners if the land in question is handed off to the DNR.

She said DNR Conservation Officer Jeremy Henke informed citizens at a town hall meeting Sept. 23 that no hunting fatalities or injuries had been reported since he took the position.

“Does safe just mean not catching a bullet?” Karsjens asked.

Bob Hanson, who owns residential property across 180th Street from Church Lake, also expressed safety concerns.

“We feel this is too close to us,” Hanson said.

According to Vorland, between 2013 and 2017, there were approximately 11 hunting incidents reported by the DNR per year statewide. During that same time period, six total incidents were fatalities. She told those gathered that they incurred more risk getting in their cars and driving to the meeting.

She applauded the Watershed District for taking advantage of grant opportunities to assist the DNR in land conservation, particularly as wetlands are one of the most diminished resources in Minnesota, she said.

“I think it’s important that you take advantage of opportunities to protect areas like this,” Vorland said.

Phillips said between the 11 Wildlife Management areas in the county, there are an average of 8.7 buildings or corrals within 500 feet of the WMA border. The Church Lake property has eight homes and a church in Shady Oak Methodist Cemetery.

Dorman, cemetery treasurer Gary Rogert, Manchester township clerk Neal Gjersvik and south border-adjacent Sue Miller also expressed concerns with the process’s transparency. Miller asked whether a process that required the public to read all of the board’s minutes and agendas created trust. She referenced the agenda from the original option agreement approval in July 2018, which reads “Motion to Approve Option Agreement – CAS Enterprise.”

“How would any of us know where that was?” Miller asked.

Henschel said this is how most of the district’s option agreements read when land is purchased, titled based on with whom the option agreement is made. He said notification to landowners was not warranted because the work the Watershed District intends to do on the property falls within the parameters for which the property is already zoned. He believes the district has been transparent, Henschel said.

Furthermore, Phillips said local match dollars spent on the project would be less than approximately $33,000, reiterating information shared in Henschel’s column. They also clarified the project’s overall cost at $609,000. This is the same number reported in a Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council 2019 Accomplishment Plan.

Watershed District board manager Gary Pestorious said he thought voting down the property for the reasons brought up at the meeting would set a dangerous precedent that would mean the Watershed District would never be able to acquire property.

“I would think that every property that was ever considered any place would be opposed by its neighbors,” Pestorious said.

Al Bakken was the only board manager to vote against the measure, with Pestorious, Mick Delger, Brad Kramer, Joe Pacovsky and Dan DeBoer all voting in favor of approving the amended option agreement.

Before voting, Bakken said he wanted to slow the process down, have further meetings with stakeholders and discuss what the options are should the Watershed District purchase the property.

Kramer said the process has plenty of time to work with landowners built in, and Phillips said the next steps — completing a survey and having an appraisal done — takes a significant amount of time. She said the Watershed District could still move forward while having stakeholder meetings at the same time.

After the vote, Kramer said he felt viewpoints from both the Watershed District and landowners have merit, and that the project will do a good job protecting the oak savanna woodlands and the property overall.

Hanson said he did not feel his questions or concerns were addressed by Tuesday’s meeting and that he is not pleased with the vote to amend the option agreement. He said it is still unclear to him why the Watershed District is involved.

“We’re pretty distraught about how the vote came out today,” Hanson said after the meeting.

In other action:

Construction on confined disposal facility cells two and three construction is behind due to wet weather. Henschel said the district is working with contractor Veit & Co. to catch up to be ready for the beginning of the 2020 dredging season. He said J.F. Brennan Co. Inc. expects to finish dredging Edgewater Bay this year.

The state House Bonding Committee will come to Albert Lea on a tour scheduled for Oct. 21, Henschel said. The Watershed District will give the committee a presentation about phase three of the dredging project for Fountain Lake.

The Watershed District would like to generate more interest around the district’s dredge, which is up for sale. It was purchased in 2012 alongside dredge pipe, pumps and a pipe seaming machine, Henschel said. The Watershed District has sold everything but the dredge.

About Sarah Kocher

Sarah covers education and arts and culture for the Tribune.

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