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New buffer penalty draws heat, gets dumped

This Stearns County, Minn., buffer was seeded and state officials checked. It filters pollution from water running into a nearby stream. Board of Soil and Water Resources photo

A proposed penalty for farmers who fail to comply with the state's new buffer was quickly dumped after it drew heated backlash from legislators, including those who represent Douglas County.

"These new penalties would devastate family farmers and could cost them tens of thousands of dollars, grossly exceeding the maximum fine of $500 as written in state statute," said Sen. Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, in an April 9 email.

Westrom said the decision to impose administrative penalties should be left to local counties and watershed districts, not "out-of-touch bureaucrats in St. Paul."

Rep. Paul Anderson, R-Starbuck, who co-chairs the House Agriculture Finance and Agriculture Policy with Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, called the penalties "an outrageous overreach by the Board of Water and Soil Resources."

In a joint statement issued Tuesday, April 10, Anderson and Hamilton said that the agriculture policy committee planned to hold an emergency hearing on April 12 to discuss the proposal and explore options to prevent these "absurd, heavy-handed penalties from being implemented."

Only hours after that joint statement, a state official backed away from the proposed rule, saying he now knows that it was a mistake.

"We heard very loudly ... we were going past where anyone thought we should be," Executive Director John Jaschke of the state Board of Water and Soil Resources told Forum News Service. "We are the ones to blame for it, me specifically. We didn't think this through."

The proposal would have given local governments the option of raising the penalty to as much as $500 a foot for property that did not comply with the law requiring vegetative buffers around water, a method to reduce water pollution. It could have applied to the entire property, not just the area that violated the law.

Current law, which will remain in force, limits the total penalty to $500, although some counties may use a law that could allow a higher penalty.

Jaschke said he expects a soil and water committee to reject the proposal Thursday.

Three of the 73 counties that enforce the buffer law (the state handles the other 14) had wondered about changes, but Jaschke said they did not ask for the $500-per-foot plan.

He said the board has received hundreds of complaints about the proposed rule, released last week, and no one supported it.

Jaschke's Tuesday announcement that the penalty hike would be junked followed heated words from rural Republican legislators and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton.

Several lawmakers blamed Dayton appointees on the water and soil board for the decision, saying that for the second straight year Dayton was waging "war on agriculture."

But Dayton was among the critics of the proposal, saying he was "surprised and disturbed" when he learned about the proposal.

The governor, whose proposal of requiring buffers created its own controversy, said the proposed fines were "unreasonable. They have come as a shock to not only myself, but also to Minnesota farmers."

Rural legislators launched a public relations barrage fighting the proposed fine increase.

"People have asked me what I thought," Weber, R-Luverne, said in a Monday night video. "Actually, the answer is quite simple," he said, tearing up a stack of paper.

As for the soil and water board members, he said, "right now they are not trusted."

Hamilton had mixed emotions after he was informed that the rule would not go through. While happy the rules are dead, he also said that there have been too many examples of the executive branch, headed by Dayton, not listening to farmers, or even asking their opinions.

"I am still concerned. How did it get this far?" Hamilton said.

He said proposals should be better vetted.

Jaschke said he made a mistake in not telling Dayton or key legislators about the plan.

"We were in a hurry, and when you are in a hurry mistakes happen," he said, promising to do better in the future.

Echo Press News Editor Al Edenloff contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.