Referendum threatens conservation district

by Monica LaBelle

A referendum to disband the Hennepin Conservation District will be on the ballot this Nov. 5 as a result of a petition and a little-known statute.

The referendum was initiated by Keefe Schunk of Corcoran, Minn., who filed a petition a few years after the organization found wetlands on his property that were filled, said Carolyn Dindorf, interim district manager and district limnologist with the Hennepin Conservation District.

The district monitors soil and water in the county and works with individual landowners to preserve wetlands and maintain safety.

But a Minnesota statute allows 25 citizens to file a petition requesting the Board of Water and Soil Resources hold a referendum about the termination of a Soil and Water Conservation District. Schunk’s petition had 39 signatures.

Schunk was not available for comment, but his sister-in-law, Beverly Schunk, said Keefe Schunk’s difficulties with the district began when he placed piles of dirt on what the Department of Natural Resources thought was a wetland after the district monitored it.

The DNR issued an order to restore the land in 1997. Almost four years and two cases later, courts found the state could not prove whether the land in question was a wetland, and Keefe was relieved of the charges in 2001.

Beverly Schunk said she wishes the Hennepin Conservation District would focus on bigger violations involved with land development.

“A lot of things (the district is) doing are pretty worthless. It’s one of those things you want ’60 Minutes’ to take a look at because it’s so frivolous,” Beverly Schunk said.

This is not the first complaint about the district’s funding allocation. Leigh Harrod, a former hydrogeologist with the Hennepin Conservation District who was fired in 1997, sued the district over her termination and reached a settlement with the board.

Harrod was then elected to the Hennepin Conservation District’s board of directors in 2000. The district filed a suit against her in an effort to define what she could and couldn’t say as an elected official and to stop her from demanding information through Minnesota’s Data Practices Act.

“They wanted to control what I said in public,” said Harrod, who later won the case.

Harrod said that despite the problems with Hennepin Conservation District, she hopes it will not be terminated as a result of this November’s election. For the first election in years, several incumbents of district’s board are facing challengers.

“If it were not that new people were coming on the ballot, I would be in favor of this referendum,” said Harrod.

She said the district wastes money on lawsuits that it could use for conservation efforts. However, much of the district’s legal fees involved Harrod.

Jerald Ostvig, a candidate for one of the district’s board seats, said Schunk’s ordeal with the district was one of the factors that encouraged him to run.

“There’s other people like him in Minnesota. That’s what got me interested,” Ostvig said. “This agency, which is below the radar, has too much power.”

Ostvig said he would review all outstanding litigation and make sure it was legitimate if elected to office.

“(Attempting to end the district) has never come up to my knowledge,” said LeAnn Buck, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

“Because of this archaic law, it’s unfortunate,” Buck said.

Jean Coleman, treasurer of the Friends of the Hennepin Conservation District and an elected supervisor for the organization, said the 52-year old Hennepin Conservation District has been the most active district in the state in recent years.

“We’ve done a lot of work that other conservation districts wish they could. We’re looked up to as a model,” Coleman said. “We make sure land owners are complying by not filling wetlands.”

Coleman said it is important to maintain wetlands to decrease the potential for flooding and to filter groundwater that is sometimes used for drinking water.

If the district were voted out in November, Coleman said Hennepin County would have difficulty redelegating the functions to other government agencies in the county.

“(Monitoring) is something other agencies don’t want to do. Hennepin County is not particularly interested in taking it on and I’m not sure they could,” Coleman said.

Suzanne Savanick, a doctoral candidate research assistant in the University’s fisheries and wildlife department, said outside of those who signed Schunk’s petition, she hasn’t heard of much opposition to the Hennepin Conservation District.

“Most people I know of are shocked that it’s possible to get rid of a government agency this way,” Savanick.


Monica LaBelle covers environment and transportation and welcomes comments at [email protected]