County appealing Indian Bureau’s OK to put land in trust

Joel Stottrup • ECM Publishers, Inc.

Mille Lacs County has filed an appeal of a U.S. Department of Interior decision to allow the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe to place the Sher parcel, in Kathio Township in northern Mille Lacs, into trust status for the Band.

The county lists the size of the Sher parcel at close to 378 acres, while the Band lists it at about 386 acres.

Once in trust status, the county would be unable to receive property taxes on it. At this point the county’s appeal of the application has held up any transfer of the land into trust.

The Band is hoping to build housing on the property. Melanie Benjamin, CEO of the Mille Lacs Band, stated in a recent message to Band members that the county’s appeal of the Band’s land-trust application is the most challenging issue at this time. She also said the appeal is delaying the construction of about 300 units of “desperately needed new housing.”

The Mille Lacs County Board of Commissioners took up the issue at the end of its Dec. 7 business meeting, going into a 12-minute closed session to discuss it with County Attorney Jan Jude and Assistant County Attorney Mark Herzing.

The board then reopened the regular meeting and passed a motion to “file lis pendens on the Sher property on behalf of the county.”

Lis pendens is a Latin term meaning a suit pending, or a written notice that a lawsuit has been filed which concerns the title to real property.

Jude explained that  the County Board’s lis pendens action began with the Band petitioning the federal government on or about Feb. 15, 2013, to have the Sher parcel placed into trust.

The U.S. Department of Interior, on or about Sept. 12, granted the Band’s request to put the Sher property into trust. The county filed its notice of appeal on or about Oct. 11.

The Interior Department then sent out an order setting a schedule that requires the county to file any additional briefs and arguments by Jan. 24, 2014. The Band would then be allowed 30 days to respond to the county, after which the county would have 15 days to file another brief. Jude said an Office of Hearings and Appeals at the Interior Department’s Board of Indian Appeals will make the decision.

The trust transfer that the Band is seeking would transfer the Sher property’s ownership to the federal government, with the Band being able to maintain use of the land, according to Jude.

Mille Lacs County received $9,930 in tax revenue on the Sher property in 2012, and the county would no longer receive such revenue once the land is in trust, Jude said. According to Jude, the county lost approximately $70,000 in tax revenue in a trust land transfer in 2008 and lost approximately $51,000 in a land trust transfer in 2009.

Benjamin, in statements to the Bureau of Indian Affairs about the application to transfer the Sher Parcel into trust, said in her summary: “Among the immutable factors within which the development will occur is the Band’s original ownership of the area and the Band’s determination to attain an adequate trust land base on which to provide for the needs of its membership.”

In both the Band’s application for putting the Sher Parcel into trust and the county’s appeal, an old issue is raised again about whether the Mille Lacs Band’s original reservation was disestablished many decades ago. The county attorney’s office maintains it was and the Band maintains it wasn’t.