The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) has applied to put over 800 acres of land in Scott County into trust, a federal status that turns governing authority over to the tribe while also ensuring the tribe can keep it forever.

The arrangement, an option for all Native American tribes, means the federal government owns the land on the tribe's behalf. Tribes must buy the land from a willing seller; once it is in trust, the state and local governments no longer collect property tax on it.

"The SMSC has lived along the river for hundreds of years and the prairies and woodlands in this area were important to the tribe," Steve Albrecht, the SMSC's tribal operations administrator, wrote in an email. "The opportunity to regain these lands to provide for the SMSC's needs in the future is critical."

Local cities and Scott County say they don't oppose the tribe's actions and have developed a strong relationship with them. But two local governments — Shakopee and Scott County — note that more land in trust means less property taxes coming in, increasing the burden to other taxpayers. Scott County has asked the SMSC to slow its applications to make tax impacts more manageable.

"We would like to see the SMSC slow the pace at which it moves land into trust status," county officials wrote in a letter to the Department of the Interior. "The collective impact of these parcels going into trust is becoming more and more significant."

Tribes pay property taxes on acquired land before it goes into trust. Once there, Albrecht noted, the tribe becomes the governing jurisdiction, responsible for providing roads, water and sewer systems, parks and emergency services.

"When the SMSC takes land into trust, it reduces the tax going to the governing entity, but it also reduces the expenses of [other jurisdictions] serving that land," he said.

The total acreage of the latest application, actually 31 separate parcels, extends into Prior Lake and Shakopee and is called Inkpata by the tribe. The community owns 6,112 acres in Scott County and about 56% of that is already in trust.

"Of course, from a county board perspective, I don't love losing that taxpayer revenue and the opportunities to guide development on that land," said Scott County Commissioner Barb Weckman Brekke. "But the SMSC has the right and ability to do this and they're good neighbors."

Prior Lake Mayor Kirt Briggs said the key is starting a conversation with the SMSC about what each party needs soon after they acquire new land.

"We are so appreciative of the relationship we have where there's open dialogue all around," he said.

Tax impact

The purpose of placing land into trust is to restore land that was taken from or lost by tribes in the past and to protect the land so tribes can keep it permanently. All SMSC laws and most federal laws apply on trust land. Minnesota law enforcement has criminal jurisdiction over anyone on SMSC trust land.

The process usually takes a minimum of two years, Albrecht said, and a tribe's application can be denied by the Department of the Interior, though that hasn't happened recently.

The tribe wants to use the Inkpata land for preservation, to provide animal habitat and for housing, Albrecht said.

Across the country, tribes have generally "become more aggressive" in their land acquisition since the 1980s, said Cris Stainbrook, president of the Little Canada-based Indian Land Tenure Foundation. "Gaming has allowed there to be more resources in Indian Country," he said.

Stainbrook said most land acquired by tribes is farmland and the majority usually remains so. Having 5,000 acres or less in trust — like the SMSC does — is a "pretty small" amount, he said.

When a tribe wants to put land into trust near an urban area, it often generates more controversy and discussion about lost property taxes than a rural parcel would, he said.

But in the case of a tribe like the SMSC that makes big local investments and brings many people to its attractions, local governments actually come out ahead when property goes into trust, even accounting for property tax losses, he said.

"The local governments really are the beneficiaries in the long haul, their economies," Stainbrook said.

The SMSC has invested millions of dollars in the local community on projects like a water treatment plant constructed jointly with Prior Lake, a new facility for organics recycling to be used by the entire metro area, and construction on local roads. They also pay Prior Lake about $1.2 million annually for police services.

Improved understanding

Relations between the tribe and local officials haven't always been so rosy. Shakopee City Administrator Bill Reynolds said the city "learned a lot" from its past efforts to legally restrict the SMSC's efforts to put land in trust.

"It was contentious and achieved nothing but the spending of money on both sides," Reynolds said. "From that experience we formed a cooperative relationship and meet on a monthly basis to discuss issues that touch our respective communities."

Several officials said their biggest concern is ensuring that cities and counties haven't already made investments, such as starting to build a road or installing pipes to eventually hook up to water or sewer.

Briggs, of Prior Lake, said when the tribe applies to put land into trust — something that's happened multiple times since he's been mayor —the city often asks for concessions. With Inkpata, for instance, the city wanted the SMSC to create a cul de sac where the city had started building a road and also asked for a trail easement.

"Where investment has been made, the tribe has been most accommodating," he said.

Frank Boyles, Prior Lake's city administrator from 1993 to 2019, recalls when the tribe had a different relationship with the city. Though some city and tribal officials got along well, there was a lot of confusion among residents, with some worried the federal government was letting the tribe steal land.

At a certain point, the city realized there was no point to fighting the trust applications and decided to make the best of things.

"That's when we really started talking with each other," Boyles said.

Soon, the SMSC was building an ice arena for the community, Boyles recalled, something local leaders had wanted but couldn't afford.

"By God, when they opened it, we all were welcome," Boyles said.

Boyles said he made a point to learn about Native American history soon after he became city administrator, which helped him understand the tribe's perspective.

"Most people would say, 'what the heck is that done for, and is it fair?'" he said of putting land in trust. "Well, look at the whole of history and then decide if it's fair."