The movement of the Minnesota River has caused some riverside landowners in Nicollet and Le Sueur counties to “lose” acres for about a decade.
When the land was originally surveyed in 1854 by the federal government, the surveyors made the river the boundary for irregularly shaped lots, as it did with lakes and other water bodies. The center of the river became the boundary for the counties.
But nature takes its course and the river moves, sometimes slowly by carrying and depositing sediment, and sometimes quickly during floods.
“Any water boundary causes problems,” said Justin Lutterman, GIS manager for Le Sueur County.
The difficulty arose for counties — and landowners — after the counties had their property mapped using geographic information system services from the air. The precise locations of property boundaries was mapped and the river was still automatically considered to be the boundary.
But it wasn’t the 1854 river route. The 2005 river route was the default boundary between the two counties.
“That was an outside determination by the photography company,” said Mandy Landkamer, property and public services department director for Nicollet County. “It was not a decision by the county.”
This created a taxation issue. Some landowners along the river who once owned stretches in Nicollet County might now have land on the east side of the river and those who owned land in Le Sueur County may now have land on the west side of the river.
Because the default was to cut off maps at the old boundary, the center of the river, some acres may be lost on the map. Those lost acres, still existing on legal descriptions, were commonly marked down as scrubland, drastically reducing the value of the property and those owners’ property tax bills.
The solution is to amend the GIS maps, undoing that default setting and returning the counties’ boundary to the 1854 riverbed. They are going through, parcel by parcel, to make sure the deed descriptions match what the GIS maps show.
“We are not changing the county boundaries,” Landkamer said.
Both Lutterman and Landkamer said they know of no instances in which a property owner was taxed twice — or by each county — for the same piece of land.
“It’s more likely that they were not paying a fair share because of the mapping area,” Lutterman said. “That means that someone else in the taxing jurisdiction is picking up the tab.”
Landowners may also have had trouble convincing prospective buyers that they owned 160 acres when a GIS record created through the county website shows only 140 acres.
“There is a customer service benefit,” Landkamer said. “And we need to have the correct data.”
Nicollet County Commissioner Marie Dranttel, whose family has owned property along the river since the early 1900s, said she found the situation “entertaining.”
“The river moves — we knew that,” she said, referring to past floods where landowners could see the changes. Manmade efforts, like Highway 169, also have changed the landscape.
“I’ve never bought or sold land there, but I could see it being an issue,” she said.
Le Sueur and Nicollet counties are working together to correct the GIS maps now with the possibility for Nicollet County of moving up the river and discussing the same issue with Blue Earth and Brown counties. Le Sueur County also shares a river boundary with Sibley County.
“We will get the issue first resolved and finalized with Le Sueur County before we move on,” Landkamer said.