Lyon County says it will take on buffer enforcement

Photo by Deb Gau At Tuesday’s county board meeting, Lyon County Commissioner Steve Ritter said he had concerns about what enforcing the state buffer law would mean for the county.

MARSHALL — Faced with an approaching deadline, members of the Lyon County Board took another look at whether to take on enforcement responsibilities for Minnesota’s new buffer law. While county commissioners had different opinions on how to approach the question, they still weren’t fans of the law, or of the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources’ enforcement policies.

In the end, commissioners voted for Lyon County to enforce the buffer law.

The topic of the buffer law drew a few members of the public to watch the board meeting Tuesday. However, no one from the gallery added comments to the commissioners’ discussion.

Lyon County Soil and Water Conservation District administrator John Biren and county ditch inspector Todd Hammer asked commissioners to consider whether Lyon County would elect to have enforcement jurisdiction when the law goes into effect.

Minnesota counties and watershed districts have until March 31 to notify the BWSR whether they will take on the task of enforcing the buffer law. If a county or watershed district elects not to enforce the law, BWSR will become the enforcement authority instead.

The buffer law requires permanent areas of vegetation around drainage ditches and public waters, to help prevent runoff entering the water. Either buffers or alternative water quality protections have to be in place for public waters by Nov. 1, and by Nov. 1, 2018, for ditches.

Biren said the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District has opted to have jurisdiction over ditches and bodies of water inside its boundaries.

“About one-third of the county is in the Yellow Medicine River Watershed District,” Biren said.

Biren said more than 2,000 parcels of land in Lyon County would be affected by the buffer law. He urged commissioners to keep in mind that wasn’t an exact count of the number of taxpayers that would be affected, as multiple parcels could be owned by one person.

Based on aerial photos taken in 2015, around 25 percent of affected properties in Lyon County would not meet the buffer law’s standards.

“Those people are not out of compliance today. The law is not in effect yet,” Biren said.

“I think we need to make a decision today,” Commissioner Charlie Sanow said of the enforcement question.

Sanow said he wasn’t happy with the buffer law, but at the same time he thought the county should opt to be an enforcement authority. If the county had the job, it could work out better for area landowners. “I think there’s going to be a lot more common sense used” in interpreting the buffer law, if enforcement was handled by county staff, he said.

Commissioners Rick Anderson and Gary Crowley agreed.

“I’ve had so many landowners approach me,” about the buffer law enforcement, Crowley said. “They want to keep it local.”

Commissioner Steve Ritter said he thought Lyon County shouldn’t be eager to enter what could be a bad deal. As enforcement authority for the buffer law, the county could be taking on additional work without additional funding, or become the target of legal action over the land used for buffers.

“I’m not against clean water. I’m against government taking land without people being compensated,” Ritter said.

The Association of Minnesota Counties is telling counties not to rush into becoming an enforcement authority, Ritter said.

“Personally, I think we need to sit back and wait,” he said.

Commissioners said the county did have the ability to stop being an enforcement authority for the buffer law — it would require giving the BWSR, local soil and water conservation districts, and watershed districts 60 days’ notice of the change.

Crowley moved that the county elect to have jurisdiction for enforcing the buffer law. Commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the motion, with Ritter casting the dissenting vote.