Judge throws out lawsuit by southeastern Minnesota dairy farm seeking to triple in size

Environmental advocates, including the Land Stewardship Project, opposed the expansion.
Lauren Ober | MPR file photo

A Winona County judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a large southeastern Minnesota dairy operation that wants to grow larger.

Members of the Daley family have been operating the dairy farm near Lewiston for more than 160 years. Its current capacity is about 1,700 cows, the equivalent of about 2,275 animal units.

Twenty-five years ago, Winona County set a limit of 1,500 animal units. Daley Farm was grandfathered in, but has repeatedly sought a variance to expand. It wants to triple in size to about 4,500 cows, or nearly 6,000 animal units.

After Winona County officials denied the variance, Daley Farm sued the county. On Tuesday, District Court Judge Douglas Bayley threw out the lawsuit, including the plaintiff’s claim that the county’s decision was biased.

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“We’re obviously pleased with the decision that it’s finally over,” said Paul Reuvers, a lawyer representing the county. “The judge issued a well-reasoned order that tracked the arguments, and dismissed all claims.”

Environmental advocates, including the Land Stewardship Project, opposed the expansion. They said the additional manure generated by a larger operation would increase the risk of water pollution in a region where nitrate in groundwater already is a problem.

Amelia Vohs is an attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which represented a group of local residents called Defenders of Drinking Water.

“Really just comes down to the amount of manure that’s being produced,” Vohs said. “Because regardless of whether you’re a small facility or a large facility, eventually you have to spread that manure on cropland someplace.”

In a statement, Daley family attorney Matthew Berger said they’re disappointed, and plan to appeal. The lawsuit argued the county unfairly appointed zoning board members who opposed the expansion.

“All citizens should be entitled to a fair hearing before an impartial decisionmaker when they apply to their government for a permit, a variance or any other relief,” Berger stated. “That did not happen here.”

Vohs said the court ruling shows the power of people getting involved in local decisions about whether it makes sense to have large farms in their community.

“I think it just shows community advocates that if if you want to address this issue in your community, your local government has power to plan for the growth of this industry and decide what’s the right level for your community,” she said.