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Stevens County to look at farming in road easements

MORRIS – Stevens County officials are looking into a new program to reclaim and maintain county road easements after a local landowner argued farming in right of ways creates safety hazards for county residents.

One question is whether the county should use taxpayer dollars to sign and re-seed the easements or try to charge individual landowners the cost of reclaiming right of ways.

The issue rose to the board’s attention after landowner Randy Schmeising presented a slide show of photos that showed where farmers along County Roads 13, 18 and 73 have planted crops on road right of ways at the board’s meeting on Tuesday.

Schmeising argued that having  crops in those areas creates dangerous blind spots for drivers and makes it more likely that drivers will hit deer or cattle.

“It’s getting so you have to watch the dust,” Schmeising said.  “On rainy days there’s no dust to tell if somebody is coming off those roads.”

“Can we possibly get to the point where we’re just mowing (crops) off?” he asked.

County Engineer Brian Giese said the highway department’s recent practice has been to re-sign right of ways when they rebuild roads. The problem is that signs indicating where right of ways begin are often damaged by farm equipment.

“We haven’t necessarily been as aggressive putting them along because they just get damaged,” said Giese. “But we’re definitely aware of a number of the issues Randy’s pointed out. To this date, we haven’t really made a big deal about cleaning them up.”

Neighboring counties have taken a variety of approaches -- some more aggressive than others -- to deal with encroachment on road right of ways, Giese said.

In 2008, Big Stone County began a public campaign against farming in right of ways and charged farmers if the county needed to come in and plant grass to restore an easement. The county also mowed down crops planted in those areas, Giese said.

However, Giese told the board he favored an approach similar to what Pope and Swift County have adopted: an aggressive signing campaign delineating where easements exist, then planting grass seed in those areas to reclaim it without charging offending landowners.

“Their approach has been that it’s not worth the expense that it’s gonna take to order compliance from multiple different landowners, let’s just start doing it ourselves and do a public campaign to keep people from making it worse,” said Giese.

One challenge in taking on this issue is that some older county highways don’t have easements officially documented, said Giese. There may be some confusion from landowners about how big the easements should be or where they start and end.

After some discussion in which board members expressed support for implementing a program to reclaim road easements, the board instructed Giese to prepare a plan for them to approve at a future meeting.

“I have no problem if we anticipate we could start something this fall using the less aggressive approach, education,” said Commissioner Phil Gausman.

Gausman suggested putting out signs marking easements and seeding the area with grass. If landowners continue to encroach, then a more forceful method may be necessary.

“There’s a cost to being more aggressive as well,” said Commissioner Jeanne Ennen. “I would rather see us educate and work with the landowners.”

County Attorney’s office signs contracts with Chokio, Donnelly

On Tuesday, the Stevens County Board of Commissioners approved contracts with the cities of Donnelly and Chokio for the county attorney’s office to provide legal services. County staff will now prosecute gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor, petty misdemeanor and ordinance violations that occur within those city limits as well as represent those cities on civil matters at a rate of $110 per hour as needed.

The county attorney’s office has a similar contract with Alberta. County Attorney Aaron Jordan also serves as the city attorney for Morris at a rate of $37,000 per year.

The board also voted increase the hours for Assistant County Attorney Carl Thunem to 36 hours per week beginning in January 2014. Thumen is paid for 28 hours per week, but Jordan said he regularly works more hours and should be paid for the hours he works.

Jordan also told the board that, at this time, he didn’t anticipate increasing the position to a full 40 hours per week.

Other business

The board appointed Amy Berlinger and Jena DeRung to fill two open seats for youth representatives on the Stevens County Extension Committee.