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Beltrami County Board denies DNR purchase of shoreland on Balm Lake

Flexing a month-old resolution intended to keep Beltrami County's tax base intact, commissioners Tuesday denied a state request to purchase more than a mile of county lakeshore.

The Department of Natural Resources provided notice to the county that it intends to purchase 153 acres of land from a private landowner that includes 6,600 feet of lakeshore along Balm Lake in Alaska Township.

The county put the 2010 market value of the parcel at $394,200 and that $4,036 in property taxes was levied against the property in 2010.

The Beltrami County Board at its Aug. 3 session passed a resolution that there be no net gain of public lands in the county, fearing the loss of property tax base and also in light of declining state payment-in-lieu-of property taxes.

"We have a willing seller," DNR Northwest Regional Director Mike Carroll told commissioners during their afternoon work session. "It fits our conservation mission."

The property would become a DNR aquatic management area, open to most public uses such as fishing, hunting and primarily as a wildlife habitat area, Carroll said. The project has the support of the Balm Lake Association, he added.

"Under our no-net-gain policy, we do not support any more land taken off the county tax roll," said County Administrator Tony Murphy, who added that the state already administers 569,249.7 acres of land in Beltrami County. That's nearly four times as much as the 147,000 acres of county-administered land in Beltrami County.

"570,000 acres -- how much more do you need?" asked Board Chairman Jack Frost.

Frost was the most adamant of the four commissioners -- Commissioner Jim Lucachick was absent -- as he at one point told Carroll to ask the Balm Lake Association if they were willing as individuals to make up the $4,036 in lost property taxes.

"We want to send a very clear message ... that we are not in favor of taking a net loss of taxable property," Frost said. "Are we for this or against it," he polled his fellow commissioners, as he pounded his fist on the table.

They all answered they were against the purchase.

The board, at its 5 p.m. regular session, unanimously passed a resolution to "deny" the DNR from purchasing the property, but what effect the resolution will have is unknown.

Earlier this summer, the DNR made a similar request for property on Lake Plantagenet to put private property into an aquatic management area but with a few more restrictions than the Balm Lake property. The DNR asked for a resolution of support for that purchase.

But Murphy said the DNR gave the county notice of its intent to purchase the Balm Lake property with no request for approval. While the DNR seemingly could go ahead with the purchase, Murphy said the purchase is probably subject to DNR St. Paul approval and that of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which is funding the purchase from Legacy sales tax funds.

"This is the perfect case in point to resolve these issues," Carroll said of the DNR's need to acquire the property and the county's need not to lose tax dollars. He said, if he could, he would put a similarly priced public parcel on the market to make up the difference, but the market won't support such a sale.

Carroll thought that the payment-in-lieu of property taxes should be sufficient, but Frost said it can't be counted on.

"We'd be lucky to see PILT in 10 years," he said.

"We have to fight like Hades to make sure it doesn't happen," said Commissioner Joe Vene.

"This is hard to swallow," said Commissioner Quentin Fairbanks. "Let private developers at it, and we'd have additional tax dollars."

County Attorney Tim Faver said the landowner, David and Jennifer Hawkins of Detroit Lakes, had originally worked with a development company, but the deal fell through when county road access issues couldn't be met.

"We have a lot of lakes, and we get nibbled away with these purchases and lose taxes," said Commissioner Jim Heltzer, noting that this was the third or fourth public purchase of private land in the county in recent months. "The lost taxes will be spread around to the other taxpayers."

Heltzer thought it ironic that the county has a strong environmental record of protecting its lakes, but the more loss of tax dollars through the loss of taxable lake property makes it hard for the county to project its sensitive lakes.

"We have a willing seller and we will have more opportunities to purchase land outstate" with the Legacy Fund, Carroll said. "I would ask that during the next session of the Legislature that you present to legislators your suggestions. Beltrami County is a leader in protecting sensitive lakes, and they will listen."

Carroll also said a good time to present a case is Sept. 27 in Bemidji when a number of high-level DNR officials will be attending a meeting of counties with Consolidated Conservation lands.

"You should have a willing county as well as a willing seller," Murphy told Carroll, suggesting that DNR policy should also dictate earlier notice and permission from the host county. Murphy said the current Balm Lake negotiations have been ongoing since early 2009.

"That would have been best in the interest of conservation," Murphy said. "No we have to raise an appeal. It's uncomfortable. We don't want to be adversarial."

"We talk to our legislators all the time," said Heltzer. "But our legislators get outvoted by urban legislators who think of this as their private playground."

According to a DNR fact sheet on the property, it has an abundance of aquatic habitat of varying types ranging from dense aquatic vegetation and bog fringe to hard-substrate shorelines to scattered stands of hardstem bulrush, wild rice and lily pads.

The habitat benefits a variety of fish and wildlife species. Tree-cavity nesting waterfowl, ground nesting waterfowl and migrating waterfowl all benefit from an abundance of feeding or nesting habitats. The area is also adjacent to a known loon management area program.

"This property would make a good multi-use area that could include angling, hiking, biking, nature viewing, general day7-use/picnic area, and hunting," states the fact sheet. "The area is large enough to accommodate many different uses."

Carroll, however, said there are no current plans to develop the property.

In a separate Balm Lake matter, the County Board approved a DNR request to release a parcel of land where a DNR public access is located. It corrects a 40-year-old mistake as the DNR accidentally constructed the access on the wrong parcel.