Daley Farm sues Winona County commissioners, Land Stewardship Project, alleging 14th Amendment violations
The lawsuit alleges that three commissioners and Land Stewardship Project members conspired to appoint biased individuals to the county's Board of Adjustment. An attorney for three of the defendants called the lawsuit "all about politics."
LEWISTON — A legal battle to expand dairy operations for Lewiston-based Daley Farm continues with a new lawsuit filed in Winona County District Court last week.
The new litigation filed on Oct. 27, 2022, alleges that specific members of the Winona County Board of Commissioners, the Land Stewardship Project and some individuals involved with LSP deprived Daley Farm operators of their 14th Amendment rights.
"I want accountability to be had," said Ben Daley, owner/operator of Daley Farm. "I just want accountability. If I could say 'accountability' 20 more times, I will, because that's what this is really all about."
Plaintiffs in the case are Daley Farm of Lewiston, Ben Daley, Michael Daley and Stephen Daley. The defendants named in the lawsuit are Winona County commissioners Marie Kovecsi, Chris Meyer and Greg Olson, along with the Land Stewardship Project and six people associated with LSP: Cherie Hales, Bobby King, Doug Nopar, Johanna Rupprecht, Barb Sogn-Frank and Kelly Stanage. Hales is also a former member of the Winona County Board of Adjustment.
The issue at hand dates back to 2017, when Daley Farm started the process of seeking regulatory approval for an expansion of its dairy farm, including requesting a variance on the county's animal unit cap. Winona County limits feedlots to 1,500 animal units; the Daleys sought a variance to expand their feedlot operation to nearly 6,000 animal units, equivalent to about 4,200 cows.
While Daley Farm's environmental assessment worksheet for the expansion was approved twice by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency — in 2019 and 2020 — the Winona County BOA turned down dairy's animal unit variance request twice, once in February 2019 and again in December 2021 .
Daley Farm's latest lawsuit alleges that LSP and the county commissioners deprived the Daleys of their 14th Amendment rights by not providing them with a hearing before unbiased decision-makers, as they "actively sought to manipulate the composition of the Winona County Board of Adjustment, which would eventually consider and decide whether to grant Daley Farm a variance to allow the project to proceed," according to the court filing on behalf of the Daleys.
Specifically, the lawsuit says the commissioners "hand-picked" LSP members Hales, Wendy Larson and Rachel Stoll to serve on the BOA. Hales, Larson and Stoll were appointed to the board on Jan. 9, 2019, a month before the initial Daley Farm variance application hearing.
Evidence for the lawsuit against LSP and nine individuals came out of the discovery process for a different lawsuit Daley Farm filed against Winona County regarding the 2019 BOA decision.
"We believe that we've got the documents and have shown the documents and have actually had a judge's ruling in this prior case that shows ... they were at fault," said Ben Daley, referring to a December 2020 court ruling that ruled in favor of the Daleys' argument that the BOA was biased against the farm's proposed expansion.
The lawsuit seeks at least $50,000 in monetary damages, noting that Daley Farm is a Land O' Lakes cooperative member and has lost out on increased milk production and sales to Land O' Lakes by not expanding.
No responses from the defendants have been filed in court as of Nov. 3, but Paul Reuvers, attorney for Kovecsi, Meyer and Olson, said he will be submitting a motion for dismissal as soon as a hearing is set.
"It's the elections next week, and this is all about politics," Reuvers said. "And this is a waste of the court's time."
Matthew Berger, attorney for the Daleys, said that the lawsuit can potentially be resolved without going to trial, but that isn't as likely "given the history of this case."
Land Stewardship Project released a statement on the lawsuit on Tuesday, which says, in part, "This litigation appears to be an attempt by Daley Farm and its agents to intimidate public servants for doing their jobs. In addition to suing the Land Stewardship Project as an organization, Daley Farm is, shockingly, suing individual community members and neighbors. The lawsuit is an effort to intimidate the hundreds of farmers who have worked with LSP in southeastern Minnesota to protect clean water, promote soil health, support beginning farmers, and bolster the local economy for the 37 years that this organization has had an office in Lewiston."
Kovecsi declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Post Bulletin contacted Olson, Meyer and Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman for comment but did not receive responses before deadline.