Hugo WMA plan hits snag over discharge of firearms

Hugo, Minn. – As the city of Hugo puts the final touches on its
city-wide comprehensive plan, the final public input meeting has
given city officials some new things to consider regarding the Paul
Hugo Farms Wildlife Management Area, in which lies Rice Lake, a
destination for state waterfowlers. One example: Some citizens
would like to do away with hunting there.

Three petitions have been submitted to the city’s planning
commission, which advises the city council. Two petitions address
firearms discharge in the city, one of which calls for an ordinance
outlawing firearms discharge within city limits – including the
WMA.

But the 360-acre WMA is just one of several places in the
developing metro community where hunting is allowed, said Mike
Ericson, Hugo’s city administrator.

He said such an ordinance would be precedent-setting.

“It would have a very significant impact,” Ericson said. “And it
would raise legal issues.”

But, he added, “The city council is aware of all the
issues.”

State WMAs have been purchased and maintained in a number of
ways, but the “mainstay,” according to the DNR’s website, has been
a surcharge on small-game hunting licenses. Other sources have been
hunting license fees, state bonding funds, and lottery
proceeds.

Tim Bremicker, DNR regional wildlife manager in St. Paul, said
the DNR has been working to complete a Paul Hugo Farms WMA
management plan while the city finishes its comprehensive plan. He
said the department hoped provisions of the state’s WMA plan might
be included in the city plan.

But some aspects might be in jeopardy.

For example, the DNR has worked with city officials to develop a
“buffer” between private lands and the WMA. But a third petition
suggests that language regarding the buffer zone, or “partnership”
area, be pulled from the city plan. The proposed area includes
private land that, when water levels are high in Rice Lake,
sometimes becomes saturated.

The proposal is included in the city’s draft plan: “The joint
goal of the DNR and the city is to ensure that development
occurring around the WMA and the hunting activities occurring
within the WMA are compatible and can coexist with minimal
conflict.

“As property owners within the partnership area choose to sell
their land for development or other purposes, the DNR, Rice Creek
Watershed District, Washington County, and the city intend to work
in partnership with landowners to acquire property, easements, or
development rights within this area to establish an effective
buffer zone and minimize the potential for conflict between
differing land uses.”

The draft states the buffer is not intended to expand the
boundaries of the WMA or add land areas for public hunting. That
plan would affect about 10 landowners.

The public meeting in Hugo was attended by a crowd that
overflowed city hall on March 12. Earlier this week, Ericson said
it was “too early (for the city council) to react” to the
petitions. He said the council would review the petitions, attempt
to better understand the possible impacts, and perhaps schedule
follow-up neighborhood meetings.

The WMA and its surrounding area have been the source of a
number of property-related issues, dating back to at least 2005,
when maintenance of a ditch – Ditch No. 2, or Hardwood Creek –
leading from Rice Lake led to the draining of the shallow lake.
Property owners along the 9-mile ditch had fought flooding issues
for many years, officials said.

The lake draining eventually led to the construction of a new
water-control structure at the lake’s northern outlet.

Bremicker expressed hope that two other WMA matters might be
moving toward resolution: The DNR will be attempting to purchase
property from two owners on the north end of the lake. One
acquisition would allow for greater ease of access to the WMA; the
other would include land upon which the water-control structure is
situated. (That land is owned by Hugo Mayor Fran Miron, a litigant
in a lawsuit against the DNR.)

The purchases could include a total of around 50 acres,
Bremicker said.

Bremicker said the March 13 meeting with city officials was
“productive” and “respectful.”

“It was a key step in moving forward in implementing our (WMA)
management plan,” he said.

Ericson said the three petitions brought forward at the meeting
caught the city’s planning commission somewhat off-guard.

He said it’s likely the city’s comprehensive plan won’t be
complete by March 31, as hoped.

“It sets us back a little bit, but that’s OK,” he said. The city
council and Metropolitan Council (the regional planning agency for
the seven-county metropolitan area) must approve the plan.

Kim Hennings, who coordinates DNR WMA acquisitions, said the
department likely wouldn’t attempt to create a WMA in an area
off-limits to firearms discharge. He was uncertain the implications
of a city passing rules that pre-empt a hunter’s ability to use an
existing WMA.

In other cases, Hennings said, the DNR has entered into
agreements with municipalities to allow for hunting in areas that
otherwise restrict the discharge of firearms – Chaska, Hastings,
and Shakopee, for example.

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