The proposal for the Ripley Dairy surfaced three years ago. A developer from Winona and another from New York wanted to house more than 2,000 cows on the edge of Ripley Township. The proposal immediately worried local residents, who mounted a vigorous campaign against it, and Ripley Township instituted zoning regulations to keep the dairy from opening.
Six months ago, the nearby town of Claremont hired Scott Jensen to bring economic development to the town. Jensen wanted to bring Claremont a new employer. So he asked the owners, Bill Rowecamp and Ben Zaitz, whether they'd be interested in having Claremont annex the land.
"The whole hostile takeover thing, I mean, that's not the intent of the City of Claremont at all," Jensen says. "I went into this thinking, whether it's in the City of Claremont or if it's out in the township as originally proposed, it's still such an economic boost."
In Minnesota, cities can annex land to encourage economic development. That right trumps the interests of townships. Usually annexations provide land for housing or new industrial buildings, but rarely for a dairy.
Jensen says if the dairy is built, Claremont would collect more property tax revenue. The city would provide no services to the dairy, but it could gain roughly $60,000 a year in taxes. The proposal also says Ripley Dairy would provide methane to power some local homes and it would hire 80 people.
Claremont City Council member Ralph Schwanke says the annexation plan could create an ugly precedent.
"It may open the door to all kinds of things in the whole state or the whole country, where people start annexing in tax base because they want to grab the money away from their neighbors," Schwanke says. "It's actually divided the town, it's turned neighbor against neighbor."
In fact, in Ripley Township, the residents voted out of office two supervisors who supported the dairy proposal.
Gary Norstad has been township clerk for the last two years. He says the dairy issue has got the whole town riled up.
"When I became clerk I got to looking, and there were seven, eight people out to vote at election," Norstad says. "The only good thing going on is that we got people out to vote. And out of 120 (registered voters) we got 102, 103, out to vote because there's an issue."
Norstad says the township wants the dairy, but wants it to be smaller. He says people worry about air and water quality and reduced property values. They want more family farms, not what he calls megafarms.
The Ripley Dairy owners recently filed suit against the zoning regulations, with the financial help of individual dairy farmers in Minnesota. The Claremont City Council could vote on the annexation within a month.
Norstad wants to know why the voices of Ripley Dairy owners carry more sway with the county and city governments than the voice of township residents.
Ben Zaitz owns the land where Ripley Dairy would be built. He is the founder of a farm auction Web site, and owns dairies in Texas and New York.
He says the answer to Norstad's question is simple -- small dairies can't survive today.
Zaitz says Minnesota's stringent regulatory process makes doing business a pain. He says state and county governments know that, and so do farmers. His dairy as a test case.
"If you were a young person in agriculture and you wanted to make a future at it, do you think you'd do it in the state of Minnesota?" Zaitz asks. "If you worked hard, took some chances, and were successful, and you decided to expand your dairy, maybe to 800. If you looked at what I'm going through, why would you ever do it?"
Back in Ripley Township, Gary Norstad says small dairies can survive. He says this fight is about maintaining the integrity of Ripley Township and its citizens.
Larger dairies are being built across the state. Gov. Tim Pawlenty is in favor of streamlining the regulatory process for dairies like Ripley. That would take zoning regulations out of township hands.