In Minnesota, penalty proposal reignites anti-buffer sentiment

St. Paul — A proposal from the state Board of Water and Soil Resources to fine landowners for noncompliance with buffer requirements near public waters drew a harsh reaction last week, leading to a House hearing  April 12 during which mostly farmers expressed their anger with a plan they called “excessive,” among other things.

But before they’d even taken the stand to testify, the state’s governor had condemned the plan, and the BWSR head had said the proposal would be withdrawn – and wouldn’t be revived. The proposed Administrative Penalty Order would’ve allowed for fines of up to $500 per linear foot for noncompliance with the buffer law. The law’s first deadline – for public waters – was last November. A second deadline – for public ditches – is this November.

In a BWSR press release last Thursday, the agency reported that its Buffer, Soils and Drainage Committee had met to review public comments on its draft amendment regarding the fines for buffer noncompliance. “Based on the comments received via the public notice, the board committee voted unanimously to reject the proposal,” the release states.

According to BWSR, the public comment period was initiated to take input and “explore an option for an alternative choice for local compliance determinations.”

Days before that announcement, however, Gov. Mark Dayton had denounced the proposal in a letter to BWSR. In the April 9 letter, Dayton wrote, “The proposed fines are unreasonable. They have come as a shock to myself, but also to Minnesota farmers.

“The buffer law protects our shared water resources, which is essential to supporting a strong and healthy rural economy and community,” he wrote. “The goal has been to reach implementation through support for landowners, using enforcement only as a last resort.”

Dayton said he, legislators, and others have worked to provide funding for buffers, which in some cases take land that formerly produced crops out of production. Penalties for noncompliance, he wrote, are a “last resort.” Even then, he added, the penalty “is forgivable when the landowner comes into compliance.” Further, landowners out of compliance at deadline are given 11 months before any action is taken against them, he wrote.

Dayton ended his letter by urging BWSR “to take swift action to reconsider this new proposed (penalty).”

Still, farmers and farm group representatives, and some state legislators, lashed out at the proposal – and BWSR – during the House hearing. Many of them took aim at what they say is the agency’s heavy-handed ways when it comes to buffers, and questioned matters of jurisdiction regarding the law, as most counties have taken on buffer-enforcement responsibilities themselves.

“Landowners do not want (BWSR) to come to Stevens County for enforcement of the law,” Ron Staples, a Stevens County commissioner, said at the hearing.

Others, including Rodd Beyer, a Traverse County farmer, called for the BWSR board to replace some of its current members (there are 20 board members) with farmers.

Some went so far as suggesting BWSR be defunded and disbanded.

John Jaschke, BWSR’s executive director, also testified during the House hearing. An apologetic Jaschke told those in attendance that the proposal was “unnecessary and unwise, and we are retracting that proposal.”

When asked who was responsible for “such a bad proposal” by Rep. Jeff Backer, a Republican small-business owner from Browns Valley, Jaschke said, “I’m taking responsibility for this.”

Added Jaschke, “My dad was a farmer and he said when you make a mistake, you own up to it and fix it. And we’re going to fix it.”

Two day before the hearing, Jaschke sent a letter to Minnesota Ag Partners. In it, he mentioned the “significant feedback” from farm organizations and others expressing concerns. …”

Jaschke stated that the agency wasn’t aware of any APOs issued to date. Officials also have stated that buffer compliance statewide stands at 98 percent.

Regarding the proposal, Jaschke wrote: “I now realize that the draft APO we put out for public comment is not in the spirit of the law. … When we put this in front of our board, we did not highlight the potential concerns or give full consideration to the potential impact to farmers. We did not consult with or inform the governor of our proposal.

“We believe that the existing options are fully sufficient going forward,” he wrote.

Thom Petersen, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said during a post-hearing interview that there’s still some confusion and concern regarding the state’s buffer law – including the determination of the buffer width required along public ditches. There’s also the question of compensation for lost farmland, he said.

“Conservation costs money,” Petersen said. He said the group is considering a push for legislation regarding the tax status of lands placed in buffers.

Meanwhile, Petersen added, farmers are facing a lot of volatility now, which may explain anxiousness regarding buffers and acreage lost to the water-protection plan. Possible foreign tariffs on soybeans are one concern. Changes to the renewable fuel standards mandate (ethanol) are another. Crop prices have trended lower for several years. “There’s a lot of volatility in the market right now,” Petersen said.