Shoreland Buffer Law on County Agenda

Jul 23, 2015
In The News

Goodhue County Planner/Zoning Administrator Mike Wozniak discussed the state's new shorelands buffer law with the County Commissioners at the June 16 meeting. Chairman Ted Seifert asked, "Now that the legislature has adjourned, do you have the final word on what happened?"

Wozniak said after the special legislative session was held, he provided a staff report memo that outlined the key points of the ombudsman bill that were approved by the legislature and had been vetoed by the governor. Wozniak said those provisions included the new buffer requirements. The law requires 50-foot buffers, with none being narrower than 30 feet. Property owners must be in compliance with public water rules by November 2017.

Public ditches will require a 16 ½ foot buffer, but according to Wozniak, this doesn't come into play in Goodhue County. The DNR will provide a mapping provision for counties that have not yet done so. Goodhue County has already mapped most of its public waters and won't need the DNR's help. He noted that there is a provision for alternative practices that may replace the buffer requirements for public waters and ditches.

There is also a provision for landowners who have applied for conservation programs or initiated a ditch authority process. They will be granted a one-year extension, but only until November 1, 2018.

Wozniak said a lot of responsibility has been put on the Soil and Water Conservation District to get the County into compliance. There was funding included in the bill to do so.

He said, "We have some suggestions on the next steps. Now that the legislation has passed, and because the standards are a little different than what is in our shoreland regulations, we'll consult with the DNR to determine if we should amend our shoreland regulations to reflect the state's standards, because we are presumably going to enforce them."

Wozniak said the letter that had been prepared earlier has not yet been sent to property owners. It will most likely be modified to reflect what has happened with the recent legislation. The sooner the letters are sent, the more time property owners will have between now and November 2017 to get into compliance.

Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel asked Wozniak to use diligence when sending out the letters. He requested that a draft copy of the letter be brought before the County Board to review at their next meeting, prior to it being sent out. He said, "This is a really hot button issue. It was rolled out terribly at the state level where it was almost like, 'We are going to do this and you better comply.' It was not a good way to go about winning friends and influencing people."

Rechtzigel said he has talked to farmers in the area, and it seems like the 50-foot requirement for buffers was an arbitrary number. "Farmers are environmentalists and they always use a lot of common sense. Some of these rules were put into place without a lot of common sense and it's like they just picked numbers out of thin air," he said.

While it is important to inform the landowners and to engage them in the next steps, it has become a volatile issue and Rechtzigel wanted Goodhue County to work with and engage the landowners instead of telling them that this is going to be the rule. Wozniak said that wouldn't be a problem. He told Rechtzigel to keep in mind that if the County and the Soil and Water District do not accomplish implementation of the buffers, it will fall to the Board of Soil and Water Resources.

Beau Kennedy from the Soil and Water District said the language in the bill states that if the Soil and Water District does not implement the program, they could lose other sources of funding. As far as enforcement goes, any watershed district or county can issue APOs, an acronym for A Penalty Order. According to the rules, Kennedy said the fines for being out of compliance are $500 and can be implemented multiple times.

The state has $5 million dollars to implement the program during the next two years, but Kennedy said, "It is difficult to determine who gets what." He pointed out that up north there are a lot of streams. He wondered if the payments for those stream buffers will be at a set rate, or based on the stream length. He said the Board of Soil and Water Resources is working on it, and counties should know in a few months about how much funding they will receive.

Kennedy said 2017 is the implementation deadline and that is a pretty lofty goal for the Soil and Water District to meet.

Seifert questioned what information is behind 50 foot buffers and asked why that number was chosen. Wozniak replied that there is research and science to support it, and they could allude to that in the letter that will be sent out. He noted that the law has some flexibility and alternative practices might be beneficial to some of Goodhue County's property owners.

Commissioner Brad Anderson said 50 foot buffers have been in place a long time. And while the 30 foot variation was not in the old language, it is in the new language of the current bill, which makes it less restrictive. He noted that 16 ½ foot buffers for ditches have also been around for a long time. "The only difference now is that they are enforcing it," he said.

Kennedy said being flexible will make the Soil and Water Resources' job difficult, but he thinks it will help the landowners to get what they want, because everything isn't cut and dry with straight streams. Ultimately he thinks this will be a good addition to the rules.

Wozniak said a few years ago the County did a mailing to all shoreland property owners informing them of the requirements, and a meeting was held to give outreach and education about the issue. It had been well attended. There was a lot of follow up with individual property owners, so many people know about the shoreland issue. Even though some weren't happy about the governor's initiative, Wozniak said, "Now it's law and we have to deal with it. We can be as diplomatic as possible, but we need to remind people of the deadlines. That brings some expediency to the issue."