The 10 acres in Columbus were once considered a land of opportunity for property owner Don Steinke. But now he views the wetlands as a political quagmire.
Steinke wants to sell the land, which he claims is virtually worthless, and the Department of Natural Resources is eager to acquire it. But on Tuesday, the Anoka County Board voted against letting the DNR acquire the land -- a decision that will likely be contested at the State Capitol before the legislative session ends.
"This should be a private citizen issue," Steinke said after the board's 4-3 vote. "In the United States, a property owner should be able to sell his land. But not in Anoka County and not in Columbus, in particular."
Steinke, who led an anti-gambling group that took the owners of a proposed harness race track to court, believes his opposition to the track hurt his chances to sell the land to the DNR. The suit was dismissed in court. But during the months preceding the opening this month of Running Aces, Steinke says trash was dumped in his yard and his mailbox was egged.
The County Board, which has never publicly discussed Steinke's anti-track crusade, has been very vocal about a proposal by state Sen. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, that would allow the DNR to acquire, without approval of the county's Wetlands Review Committee, Steinke's 10 1/2 acres.
Chaudhary, whose bill is expected to be voted upon during the legislative session, said Tuesday that the county and city of Columbus are giving a bad name to the statute for the rest of Minnesota. "There is a certain irony to the county denying the preservation of important wildlife habitat on Earth Day," he said.
Could extend wildlife area
Steinke's land, experts say, is worth an estimated $235,000, but is expected to net far more for Steinke. The DNR wants to add the land to the Lamprey Pass State Wildlife Management Area in Columbus.
Steinke says the land is "virtually worthless," and that he paid only $17.26 in property taxes on the land last year.
By law, the County Board can approve or deny DNR land acquisitions, and Tuesday the board members against it were emphatic in their opposition.
Commissioner Rhonda Sivarajah said that laws restricting the use of land within 150 feet of designated wetlands would keep neighbors from developing property they've owned for years. "This would limit Anoka County from even mowing the grass," she said.
Commissioner Dan Erhart said he was "disappointed" that Chaudhary would push his bill through committee even though the senator was well aware of the board's view. Commissoners Scott LeDoux and Robyn West also voted against the DNR acquisition.
DNR representatives who attended the board meeting said they were not surprised by the board's vote. Bryan Lueth, DNR area wildlife supervisor, said he knew there "was not tremendous support" for the DNR in this case. But Timothy Bremicker, DNR regional wildlife manager, remained optimistic, saying, "The Legislature provides us with another process, another step."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419