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Beltrami County backs off highway encroachment policy

Former Beltrami County Commissioner Rodney Benson of Puposky rises Tuesday night in opposition to a proposed policy to remove county highway road encroachments. The County Board dropped the policy when a state official told commissioners that encroachments must be removed under state law. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Poised to approve policy Tuesday that grandfathers in current county road right-of-way encroachments, Beltrami County commissioners dropped the idea when they learned the move could cost state aid dollars.

"State statute doesn't allow any kind of encroachment," Lou Tasa, state Department of Transportation assistant district engineer for state aid, told commissioners Tuesday night. And that includes structures, fences and signs, he added.

Commissioners, at the insistence of County Highway Engineer Tyler Koos, have struggled for over a month on a policy to remove encroachments, or obstacles, from the county road rights-of-way.

Koos told commissioners that state law mandates no encroachments in the right of way, but wanted policy to guide him in a consistent and uniform manner. Commissioners, however, failed to see the need for such policy and, if so, would only approve of one that would grandfather in existing encroachments.

A group of 10 to 15 rural Beltrami County farmers and loggers have attended each meeting the encroachment policy has been discussed, including Tuesday, to oppose it, saying it would force them to move fence lines.

MnDOT's Tasa said county engineers must sign off on County State Aid Highway maintenance projects that there are no encroachments in the road rights-of-way. But a Beltrami County policy grandfathering-in encroachments would force him to carefully inspect maintenance projects.

"If you grandfather in ... I won't be able to sign off the remaining 10 percent of the maintenance contract," Tasa said. "That 10 percent should make an impact on your decision."

Commissioner Jack Frost asked if state law made allowances for existing fence lines.

It doesn't, Tasa said, adding that the goal of state law is to protect the traveling public. "The statute tells you what you can and cannot do."

The law does allow counties that own the right of way to convey some back to a property owner, but the state recommends hanging onto full rights-of-way for future roadwork, especially in high traffic areas such as around Bemidji, Tasa said.

Commissioner Jim Heltzer noted that the county has yet to be sued from someone involved in a crash where an encroachment has been struck.

"You might have been lucky up to this point, but if you wait ... you put the county in a liability position," Tasa said.

"We've awaken a sleeping giant" by considering a policy, said County Board Chairman Jim Lucachick.

Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks motioned, and Commissioner Joe Vene seconded, that commissioners drop the idea of a policy and instead have Koos follow the state law.

The motion passed 4-1 with Commissioner Jim Heltzer opposed. The state law allows the county engineer to decide if an encroachment is hazardous or not, and Heltzer feared it gives the county engineer too much power,.

"With no policy, it empowers the county engineer considerably," said Heltzer. "It's a big county and he can harass people with objects in the right of way he feels are inappropriate."

Commissioners had set the third reading of the encroachment policy draft for Tuesday, a draft that County Attorney Tim Faver had changed by adding a section to allow and permit business signs in the right of way, to exempt all encroachments prior to the adoption of the policy and set up an appeal process.

Asked about the new direction with no policy, Faver said, "You are where you were before the county engineer came to you with the policy. The engineer will determine right-of-way encroachments within the statute. You will hear from constituents, and this will be before you again."

Lucachick said it would be impossible for the county to remove, at landowner's expense, all the current encroachments and instead will have to allow Koos to tackle encroachment issues at his own speed,