St. Louis County Board wants change to forest conservation lawSt. Louis County commissioners are asking Minnesota lawmakers to take a closer look at conservation easements that have been used in recent years to preserve forestland in northern counties.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
St. Louis County commissioners are asking Minnesota lawmakers to take a closer look at conservation easements that have been used in recent years to preserve forestland in northern counties.
The county wants a new state law that would hold all property-tax values unchanged after conservation easements are put in place.
The easements work by paying owners of forest land an up-front fee in exchange for legally binding agreements to keep the land open to the public for recreation, undeveloped to preserve wildlife habitat and sustainably managed and open for logging.
The easements have been widely praised by conservation, sporting and logging industry groups.
But at about the same time Blandin Paper Co. received about $44 million in state and federal conservation money in exchange for conservation easement on 190,000 acres of its forest land, the company, owned by Finish paper giant UPM, appealed to have its property taxes lowered because company officials contend land had a lower value than it had been previously assessed at.
The company took several northern counties to state tax court demanding that its taxes be reduced. Blandin officials contend assessors had set the property’s market value higher than its actual value even before the easements and assessed the property “unequally” when compared with other properties.
The counties counter that Blandin knew full well that the land no longer could be developed when it signed the easement agreements and accepted the money and that the money already paid was intended to cover that difference.
The legislative action was requested as part of the board’s 2013 legislative agenda approved Tuesday by the Committee of the Whole in Duluth and expected to get final approval next week. State lawmakers started their 2013 session on Tuesday.
If Blandin wins its battle in tax court, which has dragged on for months due to a backlog of cases and a shortage of tax court judges, St. Louis County would have to pay back $313,000 for the past two years and would lose $175,000 annually in taxes going forward, county officials figured. Itasca County, with the most Blandin acres, would have to pay back upward of $2 million. Koochiching and Aitkin counties are affected as well.
That would increase taxes for all other property owners in those counties, including homeowners, to make up the difference, said John Ongaro, St. Louis County’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
“The Legislature never intended that these large conservation easements would have the net result of substantially raising everyone else’s property taxes in a county,” Ongaro said.
Gay partner benefits dropped
An item on the County Board’s legislative agenda in December that would have asked state lawmakers to allow gay couples to receive the same employment benefits as straight couples was quietly removed when the list was approved Tuesday by the board’s Committee of the Whole.
A 40-year-old state law forbids local governments from offering such benefits, but last year’s board was poised to ask the state to change the law. This year’s more conservative board opted not to take that step.
Either way, Gov. Mark Dayton has said he would consider such a change if the Legislature gives him a bill.
More mining money, trails money
The County Board also is asking lawmakers for changes in mining tax laws that could give the county more royalties from ore recycling efforts on county tax-forfeit land.
The county also is asking lawmakers to increase parks and trail funding, especially aiming more of the state’s new outdoor sales tax money into northern counties.
And it’s asking the Legislature not to shift costs of state-mandated programs onto county taxpayers.