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Forest access road purchase still a future possibility

It has been more than three years since Land Commissioner Josh Stevenson received a petition asking Cass County to purchase land and reopen a forest access road, and now Deerfield Township residents are wondering if the county has given up.

The access road at the end of 16th Street Northwest of Deerfield crosses private property owned by G.J. Johnson Family LLC of Montana. In 2010 or earlier the owners closed the road.

The closure means that nearby residents can’t access hunting land, fishing lakes or a shortcut to Hackensack. Resident Edmund Geschwill said the forest access road has likely been open to the public for almost 100 years and he wasn’t even aware the road was on private land.

“I thought it restricted our use of the public land and really hampered our ability to go enjoy the foothills,” said Geschwill. “If we can’t get in from this end we have to drive all the way around. It was kind of an inconvenience for me and all the neighbors. Everybody used to use that road.”

Geschwill was one of 33 Deerfield residents who signed the petition to have the county purchase the property the road crosses. He has been using that road to access the Foothills State Forest for hunting and fishing for years.

“‘77 or ‘78 was when we first started using that road. We’ve been living here since 1990 but we used to always come up on the weekends,” Geschwill said.

Owner Gary Johnson said the road was closed largely because of damage being done to it when it was wet.

“It was primarily abuse of the land. Some people didn’t want to respect the land and they would drive it while it was wet and make ruts,” Johnson said.

Township board member Norm Lindahl said that was one of the reasons he was given initially.

“I think they got tired of people just going through and tearing it up,” Lindahl said. “They had some fences run over and gates knocked down and they had some real problems so they just closed it off. Mud truckers liked to get back there, and, boy, they can tear things up.”

Geschwill does not remember seeing such damage. He also said the land owner is rarely in the area, but has closed the property to the neighboring residents who never leave. He said the foothills is in their backyard, but to access it they need to drive eight to 10 miles additional each way.

When the road first closed, Johnson made a deal with the county allowing them to access the land for lumber if the county would install a gate across the private property and inform him before they drove through the property. Use by others is not allowed. That’s why residents signed a petition to try to convince the county to purchase the property.

The property met all seven of the county requirements for land acquisition and was considered a high priority. Stevenson said they contacted Johnson and found him willing to negotiate the sale. The county received funding from Lessard Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, which could be used for this purpose, and had an appraisal done on the property.

The $183,400 appraisal did not meet the owner’s expectations, and negotiations came to a pause.

“The appraisal was way below what the market shows,” Johnson said.

“The appraisal didn’t come in high enough to meet the seller’s expectation,” Stevenson said. “We aren’t in the position when we buy private land for management purposes, which is what this is. We don’t have a say as far as the price goes. It’s whatever the market will bear (the appraised value). That’s all we can pay.”

Stevenson said this is common with county land purchases, and a purchase might still happen in the future. Another piece of land with similar characteristics under almost identical circumstances has only recently been purchased near Longville after more than seven years of negotiation. Stevenson said as property values increased the county was more capable of paying the owner what he was asking. The same could happen regarding the land owned by Johnson, who said he is also still open for negotiations.

“It’s definitely still on our radar. We’ve been in communication with this owner that we’re still very interested in this parcel and as soon as the real estate market comes back to a point where the owner is comfortable letting it go at that price, we’re definitely going to try again,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also said the owner was not interested in giving the county an easement or in selling just a portion of the property, as that would lower the value of the property overall.

Stevenson asks residents to have patience. “We’re not done. We’re well aware what the desire of the township is and what the desire of the neighborhood is.”

Stevenson said Lessard Sams has continued to fund the county since the failed purchase, and money from Lessard Sams could still be used to purchase the land if negotiations are successful in the future.