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Farm Bureau sues over Ramsey County township's restrictive animal feeding ordinance

Taylor Aasmundstad, 23, a farmer near Devils Lake, N.D., is flanked by his father, Eric Aasmundstad. They are working to develop a purebred multiplier, to produce young pigs that would become farrowing sows for other hog farms. Photo taken July 26, 2017, at Devils Lake, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service1 / 2
Partner Taylor Aasmundstad of Devils Lake, N.D., shows plans for the Grand Prairie Gestation Farm that are being studied by the North Dakota Health Department. Photo taken July 26, 2017, at Devils Lake, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service2 / 2

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — The North Dakota Farm Bureau is accusing a Ramsey County township of going beyond its legal authority in trying to prevent the development of a pig farm.

North Dakota Farm Bureau, along with Ramsey County Farm Bureau and the partners developing Grand Prairie Agriculture, on Friday, Jan. 11, filed a civil suit in Northeast District Court in Ramsey County against Grand Harbor Township and its board.

“The outlook for animal agriculture in North Dakota looks pretty bleak if we don’t get these kind of things nipped in the bud before they grow legs and move across the state,” said Daryl Lies, president of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, speaking via telephone on Monday, Jan. 14, from the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in New Orleans.

Heather Johnson, chairman of the Grand Harbor Township board, had not seen the lawsuit or heard about it as of the afternoon of Jan. 14.

Taylor Aasmundstad and Daniel Julson plan to build Grand Prairie Agriculture, a $6 million purebred sow barn on 80 acres west of Devils Lake owned by Taylor Aasmundstad’s father, Eric Aasmundstad. The plan has met stark opposition from people in the community as well as on Spirit Lake Reservation.

Grand Prairie Agriculture would have up to 997 animal units — not large enough to be considered a concentrated animal feeding operation, according to previous Agweek reporting. If built, it would supply pigs to other farrowing barns that would produce piglets to go to farms that would finish them for market. While the Aasmundstads and Julson expected a decision from the North Dakota Department of Health in August 2018, the matter still is pending.

According to the complaint filed in the case, Farm Bureau and its co-plaintiffs take issue with an animal feeding operation ordinance Grand Harbor Township put in place Sept. 25, 2017, in response to Grand Prairie Agriculture’s plans. The ordinance, court documents say, “imposes environmental obligations, water setback distances, highway and road setback distances, as well as odor setbacks, which are impermissibly broad in various respects.”

“The Ordinance is intended to restrict, regulate, and suppress animal feeding operations,” the complaint says

The lawsuit asks that the court declare the Grand Harbor ordinance invalid in a declaratory judgement and to award costs and disbursements, including attorneys’ fees, to the plaintiffs.

The North Dakota Century Code, the complaint says, prevents townships from prohibiting the use of land or buildings for agriculture, from precluding the development of a concentrated animal feeding operation or from prohibiting reasonable diversification or expansion of a farming or ranching operation. Additionally, the complaint points to a 2008 case decided by the Supreme Court, Ramsey Co. Farm Bureau v. Ramsey Co, in which the court said a county zoning ordinance cannot regulate beyond the location of a feeding operation, the type of animals and the size of the operation.

“Grand Harbor Township has just gone well beyond what they are allowed to regulate,” said Tyler Leverington, an attorney for the plaintiffs.

Johnson, however, said the Grand Harbor Township did check into what they were allowed to regulate and followed state law.

“It’s just a generic ordinance with setback distances,” she said. “We just increased (setback distances) by the amounts allowed by the state. We just wanted to cover our bases and be proactive.”

Johnson said the rationale for the ordinance was so Grand Prairie would “come through us” so that the township could ensure the developers “are following the rules.”

The complaint also takes issue at the process the Grand Harbor Township board took in adopting its animal feeding ordinance, finding it did not conduct or consider studies on the issue and only spoke twice about the ordinance, according to meeting minutes.

Lies said Farm Bureau and the farm developers decided to file the lawsuit because they felt they were out of other options after the township supervisors would not return phone calls or even accept a certified letter on the case.

“Our only action was to go this route to hold them accountable,” Lies said.

Leverington pointed out that North Dakota voters in 2012 overwhelmingly supported a Constitutional amendment to ensure the right to farming and ranching. The Constitution now includes the right to “engage in modern farming and ranching practices,” and that “no law shall be enacted which abridges the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology, modern livestock production, and ranching practices.”

“Grand Harbor Township has disregarded the decision North Dakotans made at the polls, North Dakota’s Constitution, and the clear limits on township authority in the North Dakota Century Code,” a statement from North Dakota Farm Bureau said.

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