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Beltrami County Board: Residents oppose county on Balm Lake

Saying they want to protect their lake for future generations, about a dozen Balm Lake residents Tuesday opposed the Beltrami County Board's no-net-gain of public land.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Natural Resources noticed the county of its intent to purchase more than a mile of lakeshore along Balm Lake from a private landowner as an aquatic wildlife management area.

The land, with a 2010 market value of $394,200 and taxes payable in 2010 of $4,036, will be bought with funds from the Lessard-Sams Heritage Fund set up by the constitutional amendment voters approved to increase the state's sales tax.

Commissioners in August passed a resolution that they will not accept any land deals that decrease the county taxable land base, They "denied" the DNR's proposal for Balm Lake, even knowing their resolution would have little effect.

"We don't want that sort of development that can give a lot of tax money for Beltrami County that outweigh what we believe is so important about this lake," said Balm Lake resident Ted Fredrickson, a Kansas teacher. "Balm Lake is a very sensitive lake. ... The DNR liked this project so much because this was sort of a model lake for them, for saving a lake that is really worth saving."

Balm Lake resident Dave Sogaard of Grand Forks, N.D., said 25 years ago when he bought his cabin, large algae blooms were frequent in the summer. The lake association and state and local officials worked to improve the lake, which finally happened when a cultivated field was terraced and a cow pasture turned into two retirement homes.

"This really increased the water quality of Balm Lake," he said. "As a lake association, we're really trying to keep the water quality right where it is right now."

The only remaining large parcel that was privately owned went into negotiations in 2007 with Secluded Development, Sogaard said, with developers wanting to build 13 lakefront lots and 10 back lots for a total of 23 units.

Lake owners thought that too dense and that it would affect the water quality of the shallow lake, so they asked for an environmental impact statement when locating roads became an issue.

"We understand the right of people to development property, but our concern was ... a large bay that is only 2 to 3 feet deep and full of water lilies was scheduled to have four lots on it," Sogaard said. "We were really concerned about putting lots on that bay and being dredged out, and we'd lose that lake filter."

Once the EIS was requested, "they walked and basically dropped the development," he said.

Not wanting a repeat, the lake association approached the DNR about using the new Lessard-Sams funds to purchase the land and turn it into an aquatic management area. They also found a willing seller in the owner of the "Hawkins property."

"We were extremely disappointed when we saw in the paper that the County Board had taken such a strong stance against this project," Sogaard said. "We understand the frustration involved in losing taxable property at the same time losing state aid, but this is just the type of project that the Lessard fund was created for."

The people of Minnesota passed a constitutional amendment in order to purchase such environmentally sensitive lakeshores, he said. "That property cannot be developed without negatively impacting in a very big way the water quality that we have."

Board Chairman Jack Frost said the County Board did not oppose the purpose of the Balm Lake purchase, just the process and that it means one more parcel taken off the county tax rolls.

Usually, the state reimburses local governments for the land it manages with payment-in-lieu-of property taxes, but with the state facing a $5.8 billion deficit, there is fear that PILT will be gone.

"We're not anti-environmental." Frost said. "It's a process of 'Don't cut us off at the knees with our tax base.' ... It's just beginning. The Lessard fund is going to fund numerous acquisitions that will translate into an increase in taxes for all the people in Beltrami County."

Beltrami County has taken the same "no net gain" of public land as has six other northern counties, Frost said. "It's not going to stop the DNR. I can guarantee this is not going to happen. But what we want is some reasonable dialog."

"We have to take our stand with the DNR," said Commissioner Jim Lucachick. "It's a percentage of taxable property in the county, and that continues to dwindle."

County Administrator Tony Murphy said he sent a letter to the DNR with the County Board's sentiments.

"For many years, Beltrami County has been looked upon as a very strong partner with the DNR for these kinds of projects," Murphy said. "What has changed is the proposals coming out of the state Legislature and out of the Governor's Office, to eliminate payment-in-lieu-of taxes."

If PILT is no longer a part of the equation, counties will no longer be able to provide services to those lands, developed or not. "That creates a real hardship for counties like Beltrami," Murphy said.

Sogaard and others from Balm Lake said they would work with the county to make the case for PILT to the Legislature, but wants the county to back down from its Balm Lake denial.

"When all the people of Minnesota passed a constitutional amendment in order to create this fund, to purchase property and to protect property, this is what they were thinking of," Sogaard said.

Commissioner Jim Heltzer wondered if the county resolution might then be in conflict with the State Constitution amendment. He called for a County Board work session to further discuss the matter.