Attorney general: County violated law

Swanson gives opinion on Franzen matter; group sends out letters to rural homes

By Tim Ruzek

Minnesota’s attorney general has weighed in on Mower County’s feedlot controversy.

Lori Swanson, the state attorney general, wrote in a letter dated Monday that she believes Mower County violated the state’s Environmental Policy Act when it made two official decisions related to a proposed feedlot by the county’s only feedlot officer, Lowell Franzen.


Franzen issued himself feedlot authorization on Oct. 4, 2006, for his project; the county issued a zoning permit Oct. 11, 2006, for Franzen to build two hog barns.

That was about six months before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency filed an environmental review of Franzen’s project, Swanson stated in her letter to Mower County Attorney Kristen Nelsen.

A permitting decision can be declared "null and void" if made upon an incomplete or inadequate environmental review, Swanson stated, citing a previous Minnesota Court of Appeals ruling.

Nelsen was unavailable for comment Friday.

A group of 18 county citizens have a lawsuit pending in Mower District Court alleging that Franzen illegally approved his own feedlot proposal for about 14 acres in Lyle Township, misrepresented his plan and sold it this spring for a profit of nearly $250,000 to Holden Farms, a large pork producer based in Northfield, Minn.

Filed Aug. 29, the group’s civil complaint is against Mower County and Franzen, in his official county capacity and individually as a defendant. The litigation also lists the Santos Group, which also owns Holden Farms.

The Santos Group is asking the court to dismiss the civil complaint against it, said Dustan Cross, an attorney for the Santos Group.

Cross said on Friday that Santos Group "adamantly denies" any allegation of misconduct between itself and Franzen for the sale of property. Santos Group didn’t need anything from Franzen in his position to complete the project, he said.


"There was no corruption or bribery whatsoever," Cross said, noting that Santos Group believes all applicable state and county regulations were followed.

All permits and authorizations for the Santos Group’s project were provided by the MPCA, not Mower County, Cross said. None of the plaintiffs submitted comments during the project’s 30-day environmental review, he said.

A court hearing is set for 3:30 p.m. Tuesday for a judge to consider the citizens group’s request for a temporary stop to construction of facilities for Holden Farms’ major hog operation on Franzen’s former property.

On Aug. 3, the county placed Franzen on paid administrative leave until an attorney hired by the county completes an internal investigation. A phone message seeking comment Friday from Franzen wasn’t returned.

County Coordinator Craig Oscarson said Friday that the county is waiting for the conclusion of its internal investigation and Tuesday’s court hearing.

The private attorney hopes to have a final report for the county board in one to two weeks, Oscarson said.

This weekend, the citizens group and the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project is mailing informational letters on the issue to Mower County rural residences, said John Worlein, who is part of the group.

The letters ask people to call county leaders to ask them to suspend the project’s building permits and launch a criminal investigation into the matter, Worlein said. It also requests the county to enact a temporary moratorium on feedlots for more than 1,500 animal units until a process is put in place to better protect the county from outside companies seeking to build factory hog confinements, he said.

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