WABASHA — On a 3-2 vote, the Wabasha County Board of Commissioners voted Tuesday against the sale of 155 acres of farmland that would be donated to the state.

Bob McGillivray, a representative for the Trust for Public Land, gave a presentation to the board where he asked for approval of a sale of 155 acres wedged between Wabasha County Road 81 and the Zumbro River a few miles west of Kellogg and near the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest.

The current owners of the land, Travis and David Schurhammer, are looking to sell the land because it floods most years. Travis Schurhammer told the board that to keep the Zumbro from running over its banks and onto their farmland would cost about $60,000 in rock and excavation.

McGillivray said the TPL wanted to buy the land from the Schurhammers then donate it to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. As DNR land, while it would come off the tax rolls in Wabasha County, it would earn the county $5,718.75 in payment in lieu of taxes from the state, more than the parcels currently earn in property tax payments.

"This was originally forested land," McGillivray said. "That’s what it would be returned to."

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Schurhammer said he and his brother have owned the land for 15 years, but the constant battle with the river has become too much.

"I’ve given up," Schurhammer said. "I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s just impossible to farm this piece of land."

However, members of the county board had some concerns about the sale.

Commissioner Brian Goihl said that between the DNR and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 30,000 acres of Wabasha county are already off the tax rolls.

But Commissioner Don Springer, who along with Goihl and Commissioner Rich Hall voted against the sale, said the county denied acquisition last year by the DNR.

Springer added that the PILT payments from the state are rumored to be on the chopping block as the state looks to balance its budget for the current biennium.

Furthermore, the state has a police known as no-net gain, which requires the state to sell off usable farmland somewhere in the state if it acquires farmland elsewhere. The request to sell to TPL with a donation to the DNR is and end-run around that rule.

"This doesn’t mean that sale can’t go through," Springer said. "It just has to go through a different process."

Don Springer
Don Springer

Spring said the DNR likes buying land in Wabasha County because its bluff lands and rivers make it attractive for recreation. But if the state keeps taking agricultural land out of production, it can cause problems for the county, which relies on property taxes on agricultural land to run its budgets.

In other business, the board voted 4-1 in favor of using CARES Act funding to remodel the county board meeting room, making it better for social distancing and purchasing the video and audio equipment to allow the board to live stream its meetings on the internet.

"The public has been asking for clearer pictures and better sound," Springer said. "We now have an opportunity where this will not affect local tax dollars. So people beyond the (three) cities with HBC (cable television) can see the meeting with this grant money."

Spring said the county board has long considered upgrading the board's meeting room, but that would have likely meant a 1 percent increase to the levy to do it right. By using CARES Act funding, the county can get the upgrades done without impacting local taxpayers through the property tax levy.

Goihl voted no. While he did not comment Tuesday, in the past he's said the CARES Act funds are tax dollars one way or another, plus those funds should be used for business owners and residents struggling with COVID-19 expenses, not for the county board renovations.

The approved motion included $83,345.43 for new audio and video equipment, including professional installation, training on how to use it, and a warranties on the work and equipment.

"My hope is this will give us much better quality overall having a professional company where that’s all they do is this," Springer said.