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Eye in sky will help Renville County enforce buffer law

Renville County, Minn., is turning to an eye in the sky for help with enforcing the state's new buffer law. The county board of commissioners approved a contract with Pictometry for enhanced, aerial images of the county that will allow staff to use computers to accurately measure the width of buffers. Forum News Service file photo

OLIVIA, Minn. — Renville County is turning to an eye in the sky to help it enforce Minnesota's new buffer law.

Pictometry of Rochester, N.Y., will be providing the county with enhanced aerial images of the entire county. The company's computer software will layer the images with LiDAR, or Light, Detection and Range survey data. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, county staff will be able to accurately assess whether individual properties are in compliance with the law.

"It should be a massive time saver,'' said Larry Zupke, county drainage inspector.

Renville County has 151 ditch systems. There are 767 miles of open, public ditches that will require an estimated 3,000 acres of buffers. The county also has miles of public waterways where buffers are required.

The Renville County Board of Commissioners at their Nov. 14 meeting approved an agreement with Pictometry to provide the enhanced images. The action followed a presentation one week earlier by Dean Larson of Pictometry.

Renville County is among 1,400 counties across the country already relying on Pictometry's images for identifying property parcels for property tax and other purposes. Pictometry uses airplanes to fly over the county in early spring before the trees leaf out and capture images of every parcel of land from the four cardinal directions.

The standard views are captured at a resolution where each pixel on an image represents 81 square inches of ground, according to Larson.

With the enhanced version, Pictometry will capture views where each pixel represents 36 square inches of ground, or more than double the resolution.

Computer software that's part of the system makes it possible to click on the images and draw a line from the ditch bank to the end of the buffer to instantly get an accurate measurement of the width. The measurement system is 99 percent accurate, according to Larson. The 1 percent margin is human error.

Zupke said county staff already uses the Pictometry system for ditch matters. It's proven very helpful in identifying parcels and ownership within ditch systems. That's especially important now. The county is undertaking a redetermination of benefits process on a number of systems each year.

Redetermination of benefits is a procedure to appraise the benefits of a drainage system to the affected parcels, and then apportion repair or maintenance assessments accordingly.

Pictometry will be flying over Renville County during late March and early April in each of the next two years as part of the new agreement. The county will pay the company $180,000 over three years as part of the agreement for its services.

The county can use funds provided by the state for buffer law enforcement to pay for the Pictometry service. The county is expecting $150,000 in state funds this year and $200,000 next year, according to Zupke. He said the county is also expecting to add a staff position with the Soil and Water Conservation District to assist landowners.

Overall, Zupke said it appears that landowners in the county are working to comply with the new law.

On average, one to two landowners are contacting the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District office each day for information or assistance on how they can comply with the law, according to Holly Hatlewick, manager of the district.

The buffer law set a Nov. 1, 2017, deadline for buffer compliance along public waterways and a Nov. 1, 2018, for public drainage systems.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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