County sued over feedlot variance
A farm in Evansville Township that raises beef cattle has filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County Board of Adjustment and Planning Advisory Commission.
The complaint by Prairie Lakes Farm (PLF) alleges that the board relied on “inaccurate and unsupported assertions, improper procedures and disregarded the actual facts and information” about the farm’s proposed feedlot plan.
Last April, the board unanimously recommended denying PLF’s variance request for a feedlot operation consisting of 996 animal units near the intersection of County Road 1 and Lake Jennie Road. After the board’s action, PLF withdrew its conditional use application.
Nearby residents told county officials they were worried about runoff from the feedlot getting into the Chippewa River, which is less than a half mile away, and into Long Lake. They were also concerned about air and odor pollution and how it may affect their respiratory health.
Gary Koch, the lawyer representing the farm’s owner, Paul Dold, sent out a news release Thursday about the lawsuit.
“My client’s proposal met all standards for obtaining a variance from the board of adjustment” Koch said. “The fact that the project is compliant with state and county regulations and provided numerous plans to protect water quality and control runoff but was still denied is the key reason why Prairie Lakes has decided to appeal the decision.”
When contacted by the Echo Press, Dave Rush, director of Douglas County Land and Resource Management, said the county followed all procedures required by law in processing PLF’s variance application.
Rush said the county made proper notification of the board of adjustment’s public hearing on April 8 and board members considered all of the information with which they were presented.
Rush added that the board determined that PLF’s application failed to satisfy the criteria established by state law for the granting of a variance (see related sidebar information).
Koch said the area where the proposed feedlot would be located is zoned as an “agricultural core” where sustainable agriculture should be encouraged and protected. He said the proposed feedlot would provide numerous protections for water quality and fits in with the goals of the Chippewa River Watershed Project and the Minnesota Prairie Conservation Plan.
He added that the board’s decision was based on the “uninformed opinions of neighboring property owners.”
Koch said that special meetings were held to discuss the variance without notifying PLF, which he said seems to suggest that large corn and bean farmers in the area had influence over the board’s decisions. “Those multimillion dollar interests wanted the project stopped in an attempt to keep land rents and land prices in the area low,” Koch said.
When contacted by the Echo Press, Andrew Hultgren, an attorney representing residents in the area, disagreed that the county’s decision was influenced by large-scale crop farmers. “No such mention of this interest was made at the public hearing, nor in the findings of the board of adjustment,” he said.
Hultgren said that at the hearing, citizens expressed concerns about the impact of having a large-scale cattle operation so close to Chippewa River and Long Lake.
“The people expressed their pride in the unique nature of Douglas County, as being blessed with both fertile agricultural land and abundant natural resources, lakes and rivers,” Hultgren said. “They encouraged the board to consider the wisdom of those who developed the zoning ordinance requirements, and sought to balance the county’s agricultural interests with its environmental concerns.”
The citizens who spoke at the public hearing also expressed their support for continued farming in the area, Hultgren said. However, they noted that the land on which the company now seeks to construct a feedlot was previously used for grazing, hay production and crop farming. The land could continue to be used as it has in the past, he said.
Hultgren added that when PLF purchased the land in 2010, the county’s zoning ordinance, including the set-back requirements, were in place and a matter of public record.
“The owner of the company knew or should have been aware that there was no place on this land to construct a feedlot and be in compliance with the setback requirements of the county’s zoning ordinance,” he said.
In the news release, Dold said he was “shocked and saddened” when his variance was denied. He added that he grew up on a 32-cow dairy farm, which he said is the type of farm the county would now ban through the use of “overly zealous zoning regulations.”
Rush said that Douglas County has been, and continues to be, supportive of animal agriculture.
“The county has over 400 registered feedlots and has permitted the expansion of at least five feedlots in the last three years alone,” Rush said. “The county’s full-time feedlot officer works daily with animal producers to assist them in complying with the state and county regulations while they run efficient and sustainable operations that have limited negative impact on the county’s residents and resources.”
“Animal agriculture,” Rush added, “is an important part of the history and economy of Douglas County and can continue to grow and prosper when operating within the requirements set forth to protect the people and places of the county.”
In its “Findings of Fact,” the Douglas County Board of Adjustment cited several reasons for denying Prairie Lakes Farm’s variance application for a feedlot operation:
● Reducing the required set back of a half-mile to protected waters would provide less protection to Long Lake and the Chippewa River from potential pollutants. It would also impact proposed recreational development of those waters.
● It would change the character of the area and be a detriment to neighboring properties. The proposed feedlot would be 400 units larger than the largest permitted feedlot in Evansville Township. It would render the development of residential housing less desirable, therefore limiting the land’s development potential.
● The circumstances are not unique to the property. There are other locations in the county and township where a feedlot could be located that meets the half-mile setback.
● There are concerns about the feedlot’s impact on the health of nearby residents. Pollutants can exacerbate respiratory illnesses. An adult foster care facility with five elderly residents is located nearby.
● The feedlot could reduce property values. The noise and odors generated from the facility would also make it difficult for nearby property owners to sell their property.