Rep. Nora Slawik is working with a group of northern Minnesota landowners who are worried that a mining company might seize access to their property through eminent domain to explore or drill for minerals.
"We do have a lot of homeowners in our area who do have cabins in the north area that are very worried that a mining company can seize a person's land by eminent domain," she said.
A bill she sponsored that would strip mining companies of their ability condemn land if they can’t reach an agreement with the landowner didn’t get a hearing this session, but the issue isn’t dead yet, Slawik said.
Now, she’s drafting a letter to Attorney General Lori Swanson requesting an opinion on whether the state's current eminent domain statutes could be interpreted to favor the property owners.
South Maplewood resident Gus Axelson, a constituent of Slawik’s who owns a cabin about 45 minutes east of Ely, is spearheading the citizen effort. He thinks a 2006 state law that prohibits taking land by eminent domain for economic development purposes should protect his property from being sold or damaged against his will, he said.
Axelson and his brother bought their 10-acre property near Isabella about 10 years ago. At that time, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources owned the rights to any minerals under the surface of the land, and Axelson’s family owned the surface rights. He and his neighbors became concerned, he said, when the DNR put the mineral rights up for sale with no notice to the landowners.
“These mineral leases are very scary,” he said. “We didn’t know the extent to which the mining companies dominate and control the landowners.".
According to a DNR factsheet, the mineral rights owner can explore for minerals and mine, but they must pay for damages to the surface.
When Axelson and his neighbors heard their leases were going up for sale, he said, they appealed to the state’s Executive Council, which must approve mineral leases.
They got the council to delay the sale of the leases to give them time to push for a change in state law, he said.
Slawik said the bill, HF 2477, didn’t get a hearing because there wasn’t a companion bill in the Senate.
She said the issue will likely either be handled by the Executive Council or come back to the Legislature.
“Most people, they have great pride for the land and the home that they own,” she said, “and the fact that the government can come in and take that is very disturbing to many people.”
For Axelson, the idea is even more distressing now that his family has built a log cabin, he said. They cut down the trees and built it themselves, he said.
“Cabin owners have rights, too,” he said. “The cabin is a cultural icon in Minnesota and this totally tarnishes the whole idea or destroys the whole idea of what it means to own a cabin if at any time it can be taken away from you if somebody else wants it.”