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La Salle Lake region to become state recreation area

This is the area of Hubbard County that will become a new state recreation area surrounding La Salle Lake. (DNR Map)

The Hubbard County board unanimously approved the sale of 1,000 acres of privately owned lake and forestland to the Department of Natural Resources Wednesday with the caveat that the governmental taxing units affected be made whole after the sale.

The sale takes a significant portion of land off the county's tax rolls.

The La Salle Lake plan envisions a state-owned recreation area managed by Itasca State Park in northwestern Hubbard County. The lake is 10 miles northeast of the park. DNR officials said it would not be an addition to the park, but a separate recreational area with its own identity.

The public hearing

The board's approval was anticlimactic after a spirited meeting the night before in the Fern Township Hall attended by dozens of interested people in near blizzard conditions.

Township officers had opposed the sale because state monies used to replace the loss of tax revenue would deal a significant blow to their operating revenues, they said, and ability to provide services.

"You're going to see that the DNR is not trusted around here," said Fern Township board chair Ben Rucinski before the meeting. "They're trying to get this ram-rodded through."

Hubbard County board chair Lyle Robinson, in directing the commission vote of approval, conditioned it on the land being designated as a public hunting area. That maximizes the state Payment in Lieu of Taxes to the county and its taxing units.

All but 100 acres of the land will be set aside for public hunting. That 100 acres of infrastructure contains an RV park and resort.

However, Legislative changes may be necessary to allow Hubbard County Auditor Pam Heeren to distribute the PILT funds just as they would be if it were tax revenues.

There is currently a glitch in the statute that certifies the specific way it is to be returned to local governmental units that shorts townships of funds.

The property, the price

The La Salle Lake acquisition frees up rugged unspoiled terrain that has been in private hands for decades and opens it up for public hunting, fishing and recreation.

The Trust for Public Land facilitated the purchase through mainly Legacy Amendment funds. The lake is the second deepest in the state.

Two Walker developers will pocket $8.49 million, although Trust official Bob McGillvray was careful at both the public hearing and the board meeting to omit talk of the purchase price.

That's nearly twice what Hubbard County has the 953.71 acres appraised for. The valuation was arrived at through a land appraiser the DNR routinely uses for such conservation acquisitions, McGillvray said. By law a separate fair market appraisal must be conducted in addition to the county's valuation.

Local landowners fear their property values will be artificially inflated due to the valuation, which stays in effect for five years. Then the county can value the land itself. That will cause another seismic change, opponents feared.

And some landowners were angry that the struggling developers made a large profit on the land, which reportedly was purchased for $1.8 million to $2 million years ago.

In principle, most residents want to see the majestic lake and hilly surroundings preserved from further development. Such projects are the reason Minnesota voters approved passing the Legacy Amendment in 2008, DNR official Mike Carroll reminded the audience.

"This is a willing sale by private owners," he said at the beginning of the public hearing.

And that was one of Robinson's assertions about government passing judgment on the sale.

Property rights are a basic Constitutional guarantee, he told the county board.

"It'll really be a cold day in Becida before I'd let government tell a landowner he can't sell his property," Robinson maintained.

Staunch support

Lake associations, environmental and preservation groups had lauded the sale and came to offer support. The section of La Salle north of County Road 9 will be purchased this year. The remainder of the land purchase will be completed by the fall of 2011, McGillvray said.

If the land is designated as public hunting grounds, Fern Township stands to receive as much as $10,000 annually under the PILT formula. It formerly received around $6,000+ in tax revenues. The county, school district, and other taxing units received $42,700 in tax revenues from the property, according to county records. McGillvray said under the public hunting designation that amount would rise to $70,000 in PILT monies, taking the higher valuation into consideration.

And many of the state officials at the public hearing said PILT funds are safe. Citizens worried the state, deeply in dept, might look to cost cutting measures that would deprive counties of those payments. After all, some said, Local Government Aid, which was considered a sure source of municipal aid, has been whittled down to nothing.

PILT payments are more important to the forested northern counties, which tend to have higher percentages of state lands.

DNR management

"It will be managed under a new regime," Carroll assured skeptical audience members who wanted assurances the DNR wouldn't exclude the public after the purchase.

The acreage will also serve as a Wildlife Management Area, Scientific and Natural Area and Aquatic Management Area, Carroll said.

The lake has several varieties of fish, according to DNR surveys. Improved access to the lake is a priority, DNT Fisheries superintendent Doug Kingsley said.

"There's been a long history of attempts to increase access to the lake," he said.

Matt Snyder, Itasca State Park manager, said the resort, with cabins, banquet facilities, an indoor pool and other amenities, will provide year round use of the La Salle facility.

"It's a turnkey operation," he said.

Another funding source will be used, likely lottery monies, to purchase the resort itself. Legacy funds by law cannot be used to purchase buildings.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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