In a setback for the Lewiston dairy farm’s proposed expansion, the Minnesota Court of Appeals declined to take the Daley Farm’s case against Winona County. The decision sends the Daley Farm back to the Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) to apply again for the same variance that started the lawsuit. 

“We’ll go through the whole process and appeal it later,” Ben Daley said, expecting his family’s farm would be denied a second time by the county, setting the stage for future litigation.

Back in 2019, the Daley Farm won the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s (MPCA) blessing to expand its dairy feedlot from 2,275 animal units to nearly 6,000 animal units (over 4,500 cows). However, Winona County zoning code prohibits feedlots over 1,500 animal units (1,071 cows). The BOA denied the farm’s request for an exception — called a variance — from that rule, blocking the farm from expanding. 

The farm sued, claiming county officials were biased against them, and a judge agreed. BOA members and other county officials had publicly opposed the farm’s expansion prior to voting on it, and subpoenas in the lawsuit found that two BOA members were involved in organizing a Land Stewardship Project (LSP) campaign against the Daley Farm expansion and County Board members Marie Kovecsi, Greg Olson, and Chris Meyer coordinated with Daley Farm opponents on whom to appoint to the BOA. A judge found that violated the Daley Farm’s right to due process and a fair hearing by impartial decision makers.

Instead of ordering the county to permit the expansion — as the Daleys hoped — District Court Judge Kevin Mark ordered that the county reconsider the Daley Farm’s variance request, noting that the BOA members he had ruled were biased are no longer on the BOA.

The same County Board members are still serving, along with two Planning Commission members who publicly opposed the Daley Farm expansion.

The Daleys appealed, arguing that legal precedent establishes that granting the variance — rather than giving the county a do-over — is the appropriate solution. The farm’s attorney also noted that, while the biased BOA members may be gone, the district court found that the County Board members who appointed them were also biased, and those same County Board members have appointed the BOA’s new members.

Conversely, attorneys for Winona County argued, citing case law, that just because a government’s permit denial was biased, “automatic approval” is not the appropriate remedy. “The bottom line is the district court was right in remanding this matter back to the BOA,” Attorney Paul Reuvers wrote.

Normally, the Court of Appeals is obliged to take cases, but in this instance, it was up to the court’s discretion since the Daley Farm had not exhausted all of its legal options. In fact, the Court of Appeals will only take such optional cases in special situations, and Chief Judge Susan Segal wasn’t persuaded this lawsuit rose to that level. In her ruling, she disagreed with the Daley Farm’s argument that the case had broad implications for local zoning decisions across Minnesota and denied the appeal request.

Ben Daley said he plans to apply for a variance as soon as possible. “To be honest, we were just trying to speed things up,” he said of the appeal. The Daley Farm first began seeking approval for its proposed expansion in 2017.

Keep reading the Winona Post for more information.