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Agriculture committee hears ditch mowing proposals

Agriculture, transportation and environmental concerns intersected on the issue of ditch mowing Tuesday during a meeting of the House Agriculture Policy Committee.

Members heard testimony on three bills that attempt to modify, change or delay regulations that govern how land along public highway and road right-of-ways is maintained. They come on the heels of a law passed last session that required the Department of Transportation to impose a moratorium until April 30, 2018, on enforcing a new system of standardized permits to mow or bale hay on that land.

MnDOT has 255,000 acres of right-of-way land, much of which is ditches or medians adjacent to state roadways. But because the permitting process to mow or hay this land has been applied differently in the eight MnDOT districts around the state, the department created a new standardized permit for all districts in 2016. That created confusion and anger among people who had been mowing or haying that land for years without a permit, never realizing one was needed.

The sponsors of the legislation discussed Tuesday believe their measures are necessary to stop authorities from enforcing more stringent rules, while the subject receives further study.

The only bill formally before the committee was HF3150, sponsored by Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Mazeppa). It would authorize land owners or occupants to mow or hay any time of the year and prohibit road authorities from requiring them to obtain a permit. It would also establish a fine for authorities – such as MnDOT, counties and cities – that don’t destroy or remove noxious weeds from the highways, ditches or streets under their control.

Drazkowski said his bill would protect farmers and landowners from governments that refuse to follow the state’s noxious weed laws and “provides landowners with the flexibility they require in order to make those rights of way adjacent to their properties safe and free of noxious weeds.”  

But Craig Johnson, who represents the League of Minnesota Cities, said the bill would create significant costs for cities, and that local governments would not have the money to destroy all the noxious weeds on the highways, streets or ditches they control.

Rep. David Bly (DFL-Northfield) recommended a less “heavy-handed” approach in which local solutions are devised that account for different needs in different parts of the state.

HF3150 was laid over by the committee. Sen. Andrew Lang (R-Olivia) sponsors the companion, SF3551, which awaits action by the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.


Other ideas

The committee also heard two other mowing bills on an information-only basis.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent), HF4008, would extend the MnDOT enforcement moratorium for one more year, until April 30, 2019. The companion, SF3569, is sponsored by Sen. Gary Dahms (R-Redwood Falls) and awaits action by the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.

Swedzinski said his proposal would allow time for further discussion to try and find solutions to problems that still divide people.

One such issue is a MnDOT provision that only allows permit holders to mow during the month of August. This is a problem for farmers who sell the forage or use it to feed livestock. Members were told that waiting until August to mow makes the hay virtually worthless for those purposes.

But environmentalists and hunters, who value the un-mowed ditches as habitat for pollinators and wildlife, favor August mowing.

Swedzinski said mowing conversations have been “frustrating” at times because the agricultural community has been a good steward of the land.

“Farmers across the state have been maintaining these ditches for decades upon decades upon decades,” he said.

Bly said there a lot of people who care about the ditches and what happens to them and the Legislature “should be respectful of all of them.”

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jeff Backer (R-Browns Valley), HF3965, was also heard. It would prohibit policies that restrict mowing or haying in the right-of-way of a trunk highway unless they are specifically approved by law. The companion, SF3589, is sponsored by Sen. Torrey Westrom (R-Elbow Lake) and awaits action by the Senate Transportation Finance and Policy Committee.

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