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Pioneer Editorial: More public land erodes ability to tax

The Beltrami County Board last week denied the state Department of Natural Resources' wish to purchase from a private landowner 153 acres of prime lakeshore along Balm Lake in Alaska Township.

Will that action block the DNR from making the purchase? Probably not. The DNR can complete the transaction without county approval.

But county commissioners went on record in a 4-0 vote, with one commissioner absent, that they do not intend to let property tax base slowly slip into the maw of public ownership.

"How much land do you need?" Beltrami County Board Chairman Jack Frost asked DNR officials who attended last week's board work session.

How much, indeed. The DNR administers nearly 570,000 acres of land in Beltrami County -- four times the 140,000 acres of land Beltrami County itself administers.

The DNR maintains that it has a willing seller and that the land fits into its goal of preserving prime wildlife habitat and conservation goals. But it also includes some 6,600 feet of lakeshore on an environmentally sensitive lake. With lakeshore property going the way it is, it would be a prime location for a half dozen upper scale homes on a peaceful lake.

It was noted that a private sale with developers fell through, but that development of multi-housing units was perhaps too much for that lake, and road access issues could not be resolved.

The County Board last month passed a resolution that it will not allow for a net gain in public lands, as it decreases the county's property tax base. In this case, the Balm Lake property has a 2010 market value of $394,200 and $4,036 was paid in 2010 property taxes. As Commissioner Jim Heltzer noted, that's $4,036 that will now be spread among the other county property owners, especially in the Balm Lake neighborhood.

And as Frost wanted to know, does the Balm Lake Association, which supports the DNR purchase, wish to make up the $4,036 annual loss by itself?

There are areas of the state, primarily in the south, where more public land should be sought to restore southern forests. But northern Minnesota has nearly 80 percent of its presettlement wetlands in place, and has the bulk of the public ownership in the state -- including county forested lands, state-held lands, two federal forests and a national park, and American Indian lands held in trust by the federal government.

If the DNR finds this parcel so key to public ownership, then it should either pay the county the actual lost property taxes in perpetuity or put up for sale 6,600 feet of shoreland it administers in Beltrami County.

At a time when local governments already suffer from less help from the state, it's a double whammy to also take away local governments' ability to make up the difference through property taxes.