by CHRIS ROGERS
Last week, the Daley Farm dropped its latest lawsuit against Winona County Board members, the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), and a handful of LSP members. This case was the latest chapter in an ongoing legal battle over the county’s denial of a feedlot expansion permit for the Lewiston dairy farm. A separate case, challenging the denial itself and seeking a permit, is still being litigated.
The Daley Farm filed this case shortly before last fall’s election, when one of the County Board members, Chris Meyer, was running for reelection against an opponent who supported allowing larger feedlots. The farm’s decision to drop it came just before the first hearing in the case. LSP and an attorney for the County Board members said the Daley Farm had no case to begin with; LSP said the suit was merely an intimidation tactic. Ben Daley said that was not true and his family may bring the case again in the future. A federal judge dismissed it “without prejudice,” meaning the Daleys would be allowed to bring the same case in the future.
Winona County’s animal unit cap limits the size of livestock feedlots to no more than 1,500 animal units (1,071 dairy cows). In 2019, after completing an environmental review and receiving state permits, the Daley Farm applied for a variance — or an exception — from the animal unit cap to expand its farm to 6,000 animal units. The Winona County Board of Adjustment (BOA) denied the variance. The Daley Farm sued and partially won, with a judge ruling the County Board had appointed certain members to the BOA with the goal of blocking the variance and that those BOA members had pre-judged the case in violation of the Daleys’ due process rights. The judge ordered a redo of the variance decision, and the BOA denied it again in 2021. The farm sued again to challenge the denial, and that lawsuit is still moving forward.
The lawsuit the Daleys filed last October was different. Rather than suing the government, it accused people as individuals — Meyer, County Board member Greg Olson, and former board member Marie Kovecsi, and LSP members — of a conspiracy to deny its due process rights and sought damages from lost income due to the expansion’s denial. That forced individual citizen-members of LSP to hire attorneys to protect themselves.
Attorneys for the County Board members had been seeking to have the case thrown out, in part because, they argued, it was premature, given the ongoing litigation over the permit itself. In asking the court to dismiss the case, Daley Farm attorney Matthew Berger said that when this case was originally filed in state court, the expectation was that the two cases could be coordinated. When the newer lawsuit was transferred to federal court — due to its federal civil rights claims — that made coordination impossible, Berger wrote. That is why the Daley Farm seeks to drop the case, Berger wrote in a letter to the judge. The case was transferred to federal court last November. Berger sought the dismissal on March 14. A magistrate judge granted the request on March 15.
Ben Daley said the issue of coordination and the hope that dropping the federal case would speed up the state court lawsuit were the only reasons for the dismissal. He added, “We feel it could be something we come back to, obviously.”
Paul Reuvers, an attorney representing the County Board members, said, “This was a frivolous lawsuit that never should have been brought. Plaintiffs clearly dismissed the suit to avoid the inevitable dismissal by the federal district court. If plaintiffs attempt to bring a new suit following the conclusion of the state court action, it will be no less frivolous and will be vigorously and aggressively responded to in short order.”
Kelley Stanage, one of the sued LSP members who served on the Winona County Planning Commission, wrote in an email, “This lawsuit has been stressful and disruptive for many folks who are simply working for clean water, healthy soil, and a level playing field for all farmers. However, when the plaintiffs asked for our consent to dismiss, we actually wanted the lawsuit to move forward. We had a very high level of confidence we would prevail in court and wanted the opportunity to clear our names. In the end, the fact that plaintiffs brought the lawsuit in the first place, and they were the ones who had it dismissed, is all that needs to be said.”
“We said, ‘No, we want to have this heard. We think we’re going to win,’” LSP Policy Director Sean Carroll echoed. He added, “We were confident that the courts were going to dismiss this case. That would have brought a finality to this and would have protected our members against being sued again … Instead, they decided to pull it and hang it over our heads … and it’s just not right.”
“It takes a lot of money to be able to respond to these lawsuits,” Carroll continued. “We’re a nonprofit organization, and LSP has better ways to spend our time and our money than responding to frivolous lawsuits.” He continued, “This actually costs us money that could be better spent helping farmers stay on the land, better responding to fish kills, and educating people about clean drinking water.”
Carroll called the lawsuit a “bullying tactic” and said LSP would not be intimidated. If the Daley Farm sues again, the organization will defend itself, he said.
Ben Daley responded to those comments, saying, “I’ve heard them bring that up before. This is all about accountability and being a trustworthy person.” When government officials use closed-door meetings, private emails, and private phone calls to coordinate an effort to deprive citizens of their due process rights, it is right to hold them accountable, he said.
Doug Nopar, an LSP member and former staff member, said in an email, “Land Stewardship Project members have been standing up for the land and water and small and mid-sized farms for 40 years in Winona County. We’re going to keep doing that. There’s nothing illegal or immoral about people participating in the democratic process. In fact, it should be encouraged. This lawsuit may have been an attempt to intimidate people, but we’re not going away.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that LSP attorneys had argued the case should be thrown out because it is premature. Only attorneys for the county officials made that argument.
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