Madison, Minn. — The decision by the Lac qui Parle County Board of Commissioners not to appeal a judge’s ruling in a land acquisition case means the matter is now in the hands of the private landowner, who first proposed the sale, and the state of Minnesota, the prospective buyer.
County commissioners had until July 6 to appeal an April 26 decision by District Court Judge Thomas Van Hon that ruled invalid the county’s reasons for denial of a land sale between Jo’s Family Farms, LLC and its owner, Phillip Sonstegard, and the state of Minnesota. Van Hon determined the reasons stated by the county for denial were “arbitrary and capricious,” thus violating Minnesota law that states in denying an acquisition, the county “must state valid reasons.”
The 80-acre western Minnesota tract of land was slated to be added to the Baxter Wildlife Management Area, should it be acquired by the state.
Both Sonstegard’s attorney and a DNR official said this week that the case is unique, and that both parties are determining what happens next.
“The Sonstegard group is still very interested in selling (the tract) to the DNR,” Dave Olfelt, the department’s director of the Fish and Wildlife Division, said Tuesday.
Because the county didn’t appeal the district court decision, Olfelt said, “We’re regrouping now (regarding) the next steps.”
The DNR says those next steps may include either the landowner or the department taking the matter to the state’s Land Exchange Board, which consists of three members – Gov. Tim Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison, and State Auditor Julie Blaha – for approval.
“That’s where we are; we’re still trying to figure that out,” Olfelt said.
He points to state law cited by Van Hon in his decision – that the (DNR) commissioner or the landowner may submit the proposed acquisition to the Land Exchange Board if “the court finds that the disapproval is arbitrary or capricious, or that the reasons stated for disapproval are invalid.”
In fact, Van Hon reiterates the fact in his conclusion, that because the court found in favor of Sonstegard, the plaintiff “may submit the proposed acquisition to the Land Exchange Board.”
Ron Frauenshuh, who represented Sonstegard in the lawsuit that challenged the county’s denial, said he, too, wasn’t certain if involvement of the Land Exchange Board was necessary.
The DNR first notified Lac qui Parle County officials of the intent to purchase the land, located northeast of Dawson, in 2018. Several months later, in 2019, the county board rejected the sale and cited a number of reasons for doing so. Among them: that too much land in the county had been converted to conservation uses, that payment in lieu of taxes would fall short of tax revenue if the land was farmed, that public opinion weighed against the sale, and that the farmland was farmable (objecting to the “marginal” land assertion), among other things.
Early in 2020, Sonstegard sued the county over its denial of the land sale.
The DNR acknowledges it’s been criticized for its decisions during the process, with Olfelt saying the department recognizes Sonstegard’s patience and legal expenses incurred.
Still, he said, the DNR’s position is to work to find solutions with its governmental partners, including county boards.
“We want to maintain relationships with county boards, and as an agency, we’re in this for the long haul,” he said.
Todd Patzer, a commissioner for the Lac qui Parle County Board, confirmed Monday that the board chose not to appeal the April 26 judge’s decision.
“We didn’t want to go that route,” he said.
But, Patzer added, the process has provided county officials – in Lac qui Parle County and elsewhere – with information helpful when considering land acquisitions in the future: the process, as well as points to be considered if a proposal is to be denied.
In general, he said, the board’s overriding concern about land placed in permanent conservation practice is that it’s removed from the county’s agricultural inventory – which is “not in the best collective interest of the people in our community.”
Conservation insiders, too, say the Van Hon’s lengthy decision will be of interest regarding future, similar land acquisition proposals. No fewer than nine points of denial were rejected by the judge – something that won’t be lost on them amid future disputes.
One person familiar with the case also noted the DNR’s option to appeal the county’s initial denial to the Land Exchange Board – and the resulting legal expenses Sonstegard chose to accept absent that action.
Olfelt says that a number of counties in Minnesota have passed “no-net-gain” resolutions to limit acreage added to public ownership. Improving relationships with those governmental units, he said, is paramount to the DNR’s goal of “being able to work (with units of government) everywhere in the state.”