From left, Winona County Board of Adjustment members Philip Schwantz, Cherie Hales, and Wendy Larson listened to their first variance request of the year.
Next month, they will consider a major variance that would allow the Daley Farms of Lewiston to expand its dairy feedlot.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Next month, the Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) will consider the Daley Farms’ request for a variance from the county’s feedlot size limit. Normally, the county’s zoning ordinance limits feedlots to 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows), but if granted, the variance would allow the Lewiston dairy operation to expand its herd to 5,968 animal units. It is expected to generate 46 million gallons of manure annually; manure is one potential source of the nitrate pollution in many rural wells. For people on both sides of the passionate debate, the decision has big implications for rural communities, local water quality, and the local farm economy.
Earlier this month, in a split vote, the County Board appointed citizens to the BOA who had raised concerns about or criticized the Daleys’ proposed expansion during a state public comment period last fall. In an interview, BOA member Wendy Larson said she would be fair-minded when considering the Daleys’ application. However, Daley Farms Chief Financial Officer Shelly DePestel was skeptical.
In her comment to the MPCA, Larson wrote, “…With the already fragile state of our water quality related to that geology and farm runoff, I think it is clear that the expansion very likely has ‘the potential for significant environmental impacts’ and that therefore an EIS [environmental impact statement] is indeed justified.” She added of the county’s animal unit limit, “It is important to note that the Daley Farm already significantly exceeds the limit that was set in the 1990s, but was grandfathered in. I also don’t buy the farm’s arguments for the need to expand, especially when over 96 percent of dairy farms in Minnesota are 500 cows or fewer. Also, claiming that the operation needs to expand because more family members want to get involved raises the question of whether any limit, then, could ever be sustained. It is my belief that such a large, factory-farm style operation would be very detrimental to our environment and to the interactions within our rural communities.”
For her part, DePestel said that protecting water quality is all about farm practices — using appropriate manure application rates and methods, planting cover crops, and avoiding karst features, for example — not farm size. “A 1,500-animal-unit cap, it doesn’t have anything to do with the practices that are going on out there on the farm,” DePestel stated.
When local zoning officials consider individual applications, they are supposed to act like judges, making an impartial decision after giving the applicant a fair hearing and listening to all of the evidence. County Board members Steve Jacob and Marcia Ward argued that Larson and others who criticized the Daley Farms’ expansion in public comments would not be able to give the variance request a fair hearing and might put the county in legal jeopardy. Courts have occasionally overturned zoning denials because decision makers’ prior statements demonstrated that they were unfairly biased against an application.
On the other hand, County Board member Marie Kovecsi — who along with members Greg Olson and Chris Meyer supported Larson’s appointment — argued, “I believe at the time they made comments, there was nothing formal before the board. Most of the comments were focused on the need for [more environmental study] rather than the pros or cons of an individual business plan.”
“I did make a comment to the MPCA [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency], but that was way before I ever applied to the Board of Adjustment,” Larson said. She added of her ability to fairly consider the Daleys’ request, “My past has always been to consider evidence regardless.”
Planning Commission member Vince Ready also raised concerns about the Daley Farms’ proposal in comments to the MPCA. He may play a role in permitting or denying the dairy’s expansion. “I’m going to remain openminded and listen to both sides and keep on fact gathering,” he told the Post last month.
BOA members Cherie Hales and Rachel Stoll expressed concerns as well about the expansion in comments to the MPCA. They declined to comment.
“The county commissioners that reside within the city of Winona seem to have stacked the Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission against us,” DePestel said. “So I don’t have a lot of hope.” The officials who commented against the expansion have a right to free speech, but for those same people to be deciding the variance request, she stated, “It’s going pretty much against everything I’ve ever heard as fair and just.”
Why should Winona County give the Daleys a variance that is so different from what the code normally requires? Farms need to grow, DePestel responded. “For 20 years we haven’t grown. If any business is sedentary, it risks losing ground on those things that make it more efficient,” she stated. She added of environmental concerns, “We’re part of the solution. For many years, agricultural practices needed some work, and they have been worked on, and most people are implementing great management practices. We have an opportunity to do even better.”
If the variance is denied, are the Daleys considering a court challenge? “Of course, but we’ve made no decisions about that,” DePestel stated. “We’ve had an attorney for quite a while that’s been working with us on this project. He’s watching very closely with what’s going on in Winona County.”
A public hearing on the Daley Farms’ variance request will be held on Thursday, February 21, at 1 p.m. at the Tau Center, 511 Hilbert Street, in Winona. That is the BOA’s normal meeting time, but not its normal meeting location. County officials said they felt like it would be appropriate to stick to the regular meeting time and not treat the Daleys’ hearing differently in that way, but that they expected a large crowd and felt that a larger venue would be needed.
In first meetings, committees greenlight permits
In their first meetings of the year, the new BOA and Planning Commission gave applicants what they asked for and unanimously approved the requests before them. The BOA approved a variance to allow a home near Stockton to be built closer to a feedlot than normally allowed. The code normally requires a 500-foot setback between homes and small feedlots; larger feedlots require a 1,000-foot setback. The variance will allow prospective buyer of a neighboring property, Trevor Menting, to build within 130 feet of a neighboring feedlot. The BOA denied a similar variance request in the past.
Several neighbors opposed the variance, but the feedlot owner did not. One neighbor, a nursing professor, argued that the setback rule had been established to protect public health and shouldn’t be broken. Menting said he appreciated the concern for his health, but he was not worried. BOA member Larry Greden added that, having grown up on a farm and currently working as a dairy farmer, living near feedlots is pretty healthy as long as the farmer follows regulations and uses common sense. All five BOA members supported the variance.
There was a split vote when it came time for the BOA to recommend which one of its members should serve on the Planning Commission. Hales, Larson, and Stoll voted for Hales to fulfill that role, while BOA member Philip Schwantz and Greden unsuccessfully voted for Greden.
The new Planning Commission approved an after-the-fact interim use permit (IUP) — a temporary version of a conditional use permit (CUP) — for the Nisbit mine property. The property in Saratoga Township is home to the county’s only permitted frac sand mine — which is currently selling sand for dairy bedding purposes — and coincidentally, mechanic Randy Staggemeyer runs a tractor, truck, and farm equipment repair business there. In an agricultural zone, such a business requires an IUP or CUP. Staggemeyer had erected buildings and established the business without a permit and was applying for an after-the-fact permit. Some residents had complained that the Staggemeyer’s operation was using numerous semi trailers to store parts in — a neighbor felt that was unsightly — and that Staggemeyer’s former repair shop location had begun to look a lot like a scrap yard. County highway engineer Dave Kramer also expressed concerns about making sure both Staggemeyer’s customers and the Nisbit mine were following rules regarding which entrance to use off County Road 113. One of the driveways is a blind driveway. However, after working out conditions that would require Staggemeyer to reduce the number of trailers on the property over time and use the proper driveway, the Planning Commission unanimously supported the IUP. Newly appointed Planning Commission member Lynn Carlson even chimed in, raising a concern that county staff’s proposed conditions would be too restrictive on David Nisbit’s agricultural trucking operation. The Planning Commission agreed to change those conditions to be more permissive.