County board questions fairness of hunting cabin leases
The Hubbard County Board debated the potential "preemptive use" of county tax-forfeited land (TFL) at Tuesday's work session.
According to Hubbard County Land Commissioner Chip Lohmeier, there are currently 49 recreational cabin leases, plus leases for one pasture, one garden site, one garage and one University of Minnesota hydrogeologic study site on TFL.
County officials questioned the perennial transfer of cabin leases from generation to generation, along with the low annual fee.
"Cabin leases have probably been around since the early 50s," Lohmeier said. "I think the original intent of the cabin lease program, when it was initiated by the Legislature, was because, back in the 50s, we didn't have access to public lands like we do now. We didn't have forest roads. Post-World War II, there was a huge surge in interest in natural resources, and we wanted to get people out using those public lands."
During deer-hunting season, Lohmeier estimates that six to 10 people are staying in the cabins at a time. "You're talking a significant number of people utilizing those cabins" and the surrounding land, he said. "Every one of those cabin leases has deer stands scattered across the countryside, where they're hunting, and they tend to take over those areas. The question has been 'Is that preemptive use of tax-forfeited lands?' We've discussed it up and down, left and right every time we do a (county land) management plan."
County commissioner Ted VanKempen said he's lived in Hubbard County for 40 years and he wasn't even aware of recreational cabin leases on TFL. He wondered how many other residents were unaware of the opportunity.
For the past 20 years, the number of cabin leases have been capped by the county board, Lohmeier explained, but the leases may be transferred. "So there's not a chance for someone new to get into these cabin leases," he said.
There is a $300 fee for the one-year lease, plus "they also pay personal property tax on the cabin," Lohmeier said. There is no expiration date on the lease agreement.
County commissioner Dave De La Hunt said he was surprised there is no term limit. "The rest of the constituents of Hubbard County have zero access. When was the last time one came up for auction?" he asked.
"Never," Lohmeier said.
Expanding the cabin lease program to include five, 10 or 20 more may push other people out of those lands, Lohmeier said. Eliminating the program presents other issues.
"Some of those cabins are well established. They have a very long tradition of passing that cabin site on from family member to family member," he said.
Cabin styles range from a tar-paper shack to a log cabin. "They can't have a foundation. They can't be permanent. With time, most of the cabins deteriorate to a point where you can't pick them up and move them," Lohmeier said.
County commissioner Tom Krueger said, since these leases are passed within families or hunting parties, "it doesn't seem fair that others don't have a chance to bid on it."
County commissioner Char Christenson agreed, saying that's why she brought it up for discussion. "It's county land, and yet perpetually the same people are using the cabins over and over. On the flip side, they have paid the money to put the cabin up and they are keeping it up."
Improvements are a valuable investment, De La Hunt said.
By statute, Lohmeier said, a lease may only be for 10 years, but because the county renews annually "we get around that."
Krueger suggested limiting leases to 10 years, then re-opening the TFL up for a public bid.
"How do you deal with the private cabin?" asked Lohmeier. "We don't own the cabin."
"Do leases interfere with timber activities?" Krueger asked.
"We log right around them," Lohmeier said. "It has been more of a detriment to area people who want to use those public land either for hunting or other forms of recreation. We've had complaints on pretty much an annual basis that there's certain cabin leaseholders that will try and use the surrounding public land as their own and kick other people out. They have put up food plots, created wildlife openings, seeded them down with corn and rye, blocked roads off with their own vehicles so no one else can get through. These are all the complaints that we get. You block off one key road and you've blocked off several thousand acres of public lands and suddenly the public can't get to them."
Lohmeier said a trail deputy is sent to investigate complaints.
Christenson inquired how many leaseholders are from Hubbard County.
Seventy-three percent of the primary contacts on the lease are from outside of the county, Lohmeier said.
De La Hunt suggested granting 10-year leases that may be renewed up to three times. He recommended staggering the leases so they become publicly available every couple of years.
Hubbard County Assessor Ginger Woodrum is also having issues with the TFL leases. Her department isn't always notified of changes or cancellations in the lease holder, she said.
Hubbard County Recorder Nicole Lueth said this was a "frustration" for her department as well.
They suggested using a current, standardized lease form that meets statutory requirements and charging a $46 fee to record the documents at the courthouse. Lueth said the lease should be recorded within 45 days.
Woodrum also questioned the lease fee of $300, "which I think is a steal."
Lohmeier said the county board sets the annual rate in October each year.
Krueger agreed it was cheap, especially considering the use of the neighboring acres.
Lohmeier noted that Cass County raised lease rates "until people dropped out."
Woodrum said, if these leases are selling for $20,000 in private auctions, "we are undervaluing them. We should be looking at valuing those substantially higher than what we have been for the cost of construction."
Lohmeier questioned the legality of those private auctions. "How can they auction off the rights to use public land?" he asked, adding he will speak to the county attorney about the matter.
The county board asked Lohmeier, Woodrum, Lueth and County Auditor-Treasurer Kay Rave to meet with two commissioners to identify and rectify the problem.
Christenson said, "I would like to see, as part of that conversation, what are the options for the county? Should we be in the lease business? Should we be sunsetting this? Should we put them up for auction every so often? That could be explored."