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December 11, 2019

11/29/2019 4:00:00 PM
Several hours-long ditch hearing makes progress

The Chisago County commissioners have begun to tackle a unique area of county government that county engineers have consistently bemoaned, saying it needs attention.  The formal system for monitoring Chisago County ditches, and inspecting or updating rolls of benefiting properties assessed for ditches, has been pretty non-existent for decades.  County Commissioners, meeting last week as the county Ditch Authority, acknowledged they were dealing with records that were last scrutinized maybe 100 years ago.

The Ditch Authority met all day November 19  to re-establish records starting with three of the county’s 12 or so ditches.   The meeting transitioned after noontime into re-determining benefits, which could translate into a monetary hit to some landowners depending on what’s finally done.

About 30 or so citizens showed up for the 9 a.m. start of the hearing.  The process is beginning with ditches one, two and three, generally east of Harris to North Branch to Sunrise.  

Professional ditch viewers came to present the report. They were hired, paid by the acre, starting last in August.  Viewer Bryan Murphy walked the audience through the aerial data using LIDAR and 20 years of satellite imagery to show terrain types.  Field work was done and old records hunted up. In some cases former surveyors and others were spoken with individually.  The viewers analyzed contemporary ag land sales and crop productivity data for a new market valuation,  which goes into the ditch levy formulas.
The firm H2Overviewers had three people working on Chisago County.   Cost to-date is $14,767 for Ditch #1, $26,858 for Ditch #2 and $47,632 for Ditch #3.  Expenses were discussed when the Ditch 1 levy (the smallest of the ditch benefit tax zones) was reported as $250 annually.  Revenues will be an issue.

Part of the ditch network that is the county’s responsibility has fallen victim to poor record-keeping,  or there’s been private drainage projects that government was unaware of.

For instance:  Ditch 1, close to Almelund, was reviewed for either eliminating a portion that’s been run through a culvert and piped underground or for legally adding the segment into the record.  A main Ditch 1 property owner north of Hwy 95,  also has conserved wetlands over the years, and ideally would like no water drained off his parcels.

These kind of factors affect ditch record re-establishment.  Kolb stressed this process is needed to get a baseline on which ditch is located where and create an accurate database to regulate operations accordingly.

John Kolb of St. Cloud’s Rinke Noonan law firm, told the commissioners to weigh the evidence generated by the viewers and engineer Brent Johnson of Bolton & Menk, then decide if the reports are acceptable and complete or research needs to be extended.

The Board felt a couple discrepancies needed to be addressed, and set a date for a tentative final vote for December 4.  The action will be pretty much consistent with engineer Johnson’s report-- with addition of clarifications after consultants re-visit a couple trouble spots.  

The vote was 4-0 with Commissioner Mike Robinson leaving at the mid-day break.

In response to a couple requests to abandon-by- omission a couple lengths of ditch, Kolb said the county can’t just skip parts of the ditch statute.  The county must use legal tools available to acknowledge any clandestine or for that matter obsolete, drainage amenities. They do this before any legal process to abandon moves ahead, correcting the record and accounting for what’s existing.

Many members of the public had concerns about the 16.5 foot buffer strip that Minnesota requires along certain “waterways.”  There are so-called damages, that owners will be compensated for. One farmer, Kevin Mann, said these  really can’t be viewed as some kind of windfall when there are operational losses.

With land on ditches two and three-- Max Malmquist also commented that everybody benefits when water quality measures are successful (like buffer plantings) so everybody (state) should be paying ditch costs.  He questioned, “...what benefit is created for me putting in a buffer?”  He said there are no physical improvements for his ditch frontages covered by projected costs in the hearing notice.
Mann added that he’s been in Peaceful Valley (east of Harris containing truck farms and sod) since the 1960s and is not opposed to water quality, just to assessing him for no benefit while taking property.

Commissioner Ben Montzka cooled things down a bit when he explained to the citizens that certain costs included in their public hearing notices were “notional.” He preferred the word hypothetical, adding projected costs are just an example of what any future improvement to the system might be.  Said Montzka,  “We need to get rid of that word, it’s freaking out the residents.”

Commissioner Chris DuBose thanked the citizens for coming and speaking about concerns, possible inaccuracies in data and their historical perspectives.  “That’s why we’re here,” he stated.

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