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County takes over conservation easements

Hubbard County took a giant step toward land conservation Wednesday when its Board of Commissioners pushed to begin overseeing conservation easements.

The move, spearheaded by board chair Lyle Robinson, will result in the county's Environmental Services department drafting a set of rules for the administration of such easements. They are used to preserve natural areas for the benefit of the public. They involve legally binding agreements to preserve certain lands, with penalties for violating the covenants.

Robinson, an avid ATV supporter, seemed an unlikely candidate to back such a move, but he and the board want a process in place so developers in the future can turn over wetland areas to the county to oversee. His fellow commissioner, Doc Carlson, an avowed environmentalist, jumped on the bandwagon.

"Conservation easements are a good way to see responsible development take place, but the oversight should be with Environmental Services," Carlson said.

The concept began earlier this spring when developer Tom Miller came before the board with an upscale project on Potato Lake that would leave certain areas pristine by creating a common boardwalk and dock.

Miller said the idea was to prevent individual homeowners from building multiple docks that would spoil the lakefront.

He wanted to create a conservation easement with covenants prohibiting the landowners from removing vegetation and erecting individual paths to the lake. The area is forested with a wetland in between the development and the lake. It's home to an abundance of wildlife and Miller envisioned the homeowners being good stewards of the area, but wanted some legal teeth and oversight to ensure compliance.

He explained that he was having problems getting an agency to oversee the easement. He eventually drafted covenants making the homeowners responsible for policing each other. The homes will go on the market soon.

"Isn't that like the fox guarding the henhouse?" Robinson asked, clearly perturbed that Miller was unable to get an entity to oversee the wetland acreage.

Robinson also suggested the overburdened DNR wasn't the agency to oversee the plan.

Miller had contacted the Minnesota Land Trust and Nature Conservancy with little feedback.

Commissioner Cal Johannsen had earlier attended a meeting with the Soil and Water Conservation Department, in which that agency had coincidentally proposed being the watchdog for conservation easements.

But commissioners want a county agency in charge so the county attorney can prosecute any violations.

And they were concerned that the red tape Miller had experienced was thwarting other landowners from trying to create similar easements.

"We need to have a standard footprint to work from," Robinson said, directing Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf to draw up some guidelines to govern the creation and oversight of future easements.

"It's the right direction to go," Miller said in thanking the board.