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County-owned tax-forfeited lands can be impossible to access

Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede (second from left) looks at Land Services Director Gary Griffin (center) Tuesday as Griffin talks about the difficult in accessing some tax-forfeited lands surrounded by private property, while Environmental Services Supervisor Ryan Simonson sits next to him at the table and Environment Services Manager Paul Herkenhoff watches from the audience at the Historic Courthouse on Laurel Street. Frank Lee / Brainerd Dispatch

More than 9,000 acres of tax-forfeited lands in Crow Wing County are inaccessible because of surrounding private property owners denying access, and that's a cause for concern for county officials.

Also about 3,300 acres of tax-forfeited lands owned by the county are "isolated" 40-acre properties the county believes have "no public benefits" and could be sold.

"The problem we've encountered is the people who have property around it have always used tax-forfeited lands for free, so of course they don't want to buy it," Commissioner Rosemary Franzen said.

Land Services Director Gary Griffin told county board members at the Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday the county could attempt to secure forest management access only to tax-forfeited lands, open them for public use or do nothing about those lands.

Little Beaver Lake, which is south of County Highway 16, abuts tax-forfeited property, for example, to the north and west of it in Crow Wing County.

"The forestry staff has called everybody around that chunk ... and everybody has denied us access," Griffin said at the Historic County Courthouse meeting. "It's got mature aspen that needs to be harvested, but we don't have access. ... We want to manage it for timber."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county has a total area of 1,157 square miles, of which almost a thousand square miles is land and 157 square miles is water.

"The problem is if we try to sell these tax-forfeited lands, and there's no access—the people that may be around it, we could try a direct sale to one of them—we're going to have to try and come up with some discount for a landlocked issue," Griffin said.

Commissioner Paul Thiede said, "But is it right that one person is using this tax-forfeited land as his own private hunting preserve, and they are holding us hostage to be able to sell it at a reasonable market value?"

Environmental Services Manager Paul Herkenhoff said a buyer of a landlocked tax-forfeited property sold by the county could obtain an easement by agreement, go through the township where the land is located to get a cartway or road authority, or go through the court system.

"Easements are such a tricky animal. I deal with them all the time. There's a benefit to the public to get to public land, but there's also huge burden on the landowner (dealing with litter left behind)," Herkenhoff said.

Properties offered for sale have forfeited to the state of Minnesota for failure to pay property taxes. Properties offered for sale at prior auctions and remaining unsold can be purchased over the counter.

"I have no problem at all with divesting ourselves of some of these lands that are like this," Thiede said. "But it's got to be at a reasonable price, and that's the part that's hard to get to."

More than 450 properties in Crow Wing County offered at prior auctions, which are held twice a year, are available for immediate sale. "These properties can be purchased at any time 'over-the-counter' at the starting bid price," according to county officials.

"There would definitely be more revenue if we sold those properties. There will be actual money that we get for the property plus they're on the tax rolls," Griffin said of the land were sold.

"You'd hope or would think some of these people would probably build—maybe not houses but sheds and things of that nature, too—so would it increase the tax base? Absolutely."

Another example of landlocked, tax-forfeited land is the area west, south and east of South Long Lake, which is north of Camp Lake Road and east of County Highway 8. The county received a one-time permission from a neighboring private property owner to gain access to the South Long Lake area.

"We tried to do some of these that are just forestry-management easements only, so that just foresters can get to the wood," Griffin said.

Franzen said, "I totally believe that this is tax-forfeited land, so it belongs to everyone in the county—not just the people who have property around it—and everybody should have the right to go out there and hunt, walk. ... It belongs to everyone."

According to county officials: "Properties are sold as-is and the county makes no warranties as to the condition of the title and no representations regarding whether these parcels have access now or will have access in the future."

"So it will be decided by a case-by-case basis," County Administrator Tim Houle summarized how Land Services should proceed with inaccessible tax-forfeited lands with no easements.

"It's a cost-benefit analysis based on what we think it would take to acquire a forestry easement versus what we think it would take to acquire a full easement ... and which ones you think it doesn't make sense that we should try and should offer for sale."