Ditch mowing permits overreach, area residents say

Around 70 attend listening session with MnDOT Wednesday

Photo by Deb Gau State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, left, was among the area residents who spoke at a Wednesday listening session on roadside ditch mowing. Area residents said they were against permit requirements for ditch mowing, and for restrictions on when mowing could be done.

MARSHALL — Laws regulating hay mowing along Minnesota state highways have been on the books since the 1980s. The big question, as area farmers asked it Wednesday night, was: why start enforcing them now?

In a listening session with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, area residents had plenty of criticism, both for MnDOT requiring permits to mow in the highway right of way, and for restrictions on when ditches can be mowed. Speakers said enforcing the permit and mowing requirements was bad for farming, bad for weed control, and bad for safety.

“This, to me, is another example of government overreach,” Alan Steinhoff told a panel of MnDOT members gathered at Marshall Middle School.

Mike Welu said it looked like part of the purpose of the permit rule enforcement was “basically to harass farmers.”

A few speakers said they refused to stop mowing ditches adjacent to their land, even if it meant going to jail.

Around 70 people attended the Marshall listening session, including Minnesota Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent. Swedzinski was part of efforts to put a hold on enforcing the mowing permit requirements.

MnDOT Assistant Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said state law requires a permit to mow or bale hay in the right of way of a trunk highway. Under state statutes that date back to 1985, full mowing of the right of way can only be done between Aug. 1-31, to protect wildlife habitat. In the past couple of years, MnDOT has turned more of its attention toward making people aware of the permit requirements, and enforcing them.

This year, the Minnesota Legislature put a temporary hold on enforcing the permit requirements, and called for the commissioner of transportation to recommend a permit or notification system to mow in the highway right of way. As part of that process, MnDOT formed a stakeholder group, and is holding several listening sessions around Minnesota.

Around 30 area residents signed up to speak to a panel of MnDOT members, and nearly all criticized the decision to start enforcing the mowing permits. Some residents said they had been mowing or haying in highway ditches for decades, without ever hearing of the law.

“Why is this suddenly a big concern?” asked Eugene Olson.

Daubenberger said better communication with MnDOT was one aspect of the permit process.

“It’s important for MnDOT to know who’s out there,” and about the kind of work being done along the highways, she said.

The restricted window of time where mowing was allowed was another topic that drew a lot of criticism from area residents. If farmers have to wait until August to cut hay along state highways, no one will do it, they said. By that time of year, the hay quality isn’t good enough to be worth it.

Mowing earlier than August was also important for controlling noxious weeds like thistle, speakers said.

“You can’t go out and mow thistles the first of August,” said Lyon County resident and county Commissioner Gary Crowley. At that point, they’ve already gone to seed, he said.

Area residents also said they had concerns about the cost of MnDOT’s permit requirements, which included a damage deposit of $500 or more, plus requirements that permit holders have insurance and use high-visibility gear while working in the right of way.

“I think the idea of a permit works really well when the state of Minnesota owns the adjacent land,” and there could be disputes as to who can mow a ditch, Swedzinski said at the listening session. But for the most part, he said, “A permit is not necessary, because it’s not been a problem.”

Based on the local response to the listening session, Swedzinski said, “It’s pretty clear what people think” about the permit requirements. Swedzinski said he was interested in there being more local control over issues like when hay mowing was allowed.