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North Dakota swine barn developers 'back at it' after Supreme Court win

Daniel Julson, one of the partners in Grand Prairie Agriculture, says plans for a sow barn in Ramsey County, N.D., are back on after the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled in their favor in a lawsuit with Pelican Township over permitting and zoning.

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Partner Taylor Aasmundstad of Devils Lake, N.D., shows plans for the Grand Prairie Gestation Farm. The farm was denied a permit by Pelican Township, but the North Dakota Supreme Court said that decision was incorrect. Photo taken July 26, 2017, at Devils Lake, N.D. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

Now that the North Dakota Supreme Court has ruled that Pelican Township in Ramsey County, N.D., incorrectly denied a permit to Grand Prairie Agriculture for a planned sow barn , one of the people planning the barn says they’ll get “back to it.”

Before the Supreme Court opinion, Daniel Julson, one of the partners in Grand Prairie Agriculture, said it “seemed like nothing was going to go in our favor.” With the unanimous opinion of the state’s high court, he said Grand Prairie intends to move forward.

However, Grand Prairie’s attorney Tyler Leverington isn’t counting on anything being easy.

“I’m not really holding my breath for that. If the township truly intended to do the right thing, we wouldn’t have had to spend a year in court to begin with,” he said.

Julson and Taylor Aasmundstad began planning a sow barn in Ramsey County in 2016. The farm would provide piglets to about 10 farms, likely in Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa, for finishing . The proposed site for the farm is 10 miles west and 1 mile north of the city of Devils Lake. The proposal drew pushback from area residents because of its proximity to the waters of Devils Lake and to Spirit Lake Nation.

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Grand Prairie submitted a petition for a swine operation with a maximum scope of 999.6 animal units to Pelican Township on Oct. 2, 2019. The township denied the permit, ruling the proposed farm was too close to Kenner Campground. Grand Prairie appealed to district court, which upheld the township’s decision.

Grand Prairie then appealed to the North Dakota Supreme Court, which sided with the farm, saying Pelican Township had not followed the intent of state law in denying the permit. The only basis to deny such a permit is if there is an occupied residence or a building used for nonfarm purposes within a setback area, or if the proposed operation is on land zoned for residential, recreational or commercial purposes, the court said. Pelican Township, in its entirety, has been zoned agricultural since 2017, and there is not an occupied residence nor a building used for nonfarm purposes within the setback distance.

"In this case, the Township used the campground to measure the setback distance for the proposed AFO. The campground did not include an occupied residence or a building used for nonfarm or nonranch purposes. It also was not located on land zoned for residential, recreational or commercial purposes," Justice Jerod Tufte wrote in the unanimous opinion.

The decision, Leverington said, “should mean that Grand Prairie has a clear, easy path to a permit.”

He said he has reached out to the township and its attorney to try to clear the matter up.

“We’re trying to work with the township. We don’t want to railroad them,” he said.

Scott Carlson, attorney for Pelican Township and the executive director of Farmers’ Legal Action Group of St. Paul, Minn., did not return a call or an email seeking comment on the case and the township’s next plans. Clark Steinhaus, chairman of Pelican Township, also did not return a call seeking comment.

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Leverington pointed out that the barn will have to follow North Dakota Health Department rules and be permitted by that agency, and Grand Prairie intends to maintain high environmental standards.

Julson continues to be surprised at how much controversy the barn — quite small on the standards of modern animal confinement facilities — has generated. The barn planned would be built with modern standards of sanitation and would be in what Julson describes as a very remote area. He believes there has been rampant misunderstanding of the planned operation, with some thinking it would be an open-lot feeding operation with no environmental controls.

To the contrary, Julson said he doesn’t think he’d be “able to sleep at night” if there was any chance waste from the facility could make its way to Devils Lake.

Julson credits the support of North Dakota Farm Bureau in keeping Grand Prairie going, saying they’d have been “silenced” without the group’s assistance.

“They’re the reason we’re still standing,” he said.

In a statement released after the ruling in the case, Farm Bureau pointed out that North Dakota lags neighboring states, including Minnesota, in animal agriculture .

“Farmers and ranchers across this state face overzealous regulations intended to zone them out of existence. These regulations go well beyond what is allowed by state law — often forcing farmers to jump through hoops, which their peers in regulation-heavy states like Minnesota avoid entirely,” the statement said. “However … the North Dakota Supreme Court confirms the rule of law still protects farmers and ranchers from these pointed regulatory attacks.”

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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