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Citizens ask judge to halt feedlot

By Tim Ruzek

Post-Bulletin, Austin MN

A Mower County judge is considering a request from a citizens group to halt temporarily the construction of a large hog operation.

In a packed courtroom, Judge Donald E. Rysavy heard arguments for more than an hour Tuesday on the civil matter. A few dozen people weren’t allowed inside because of a lack of seating.

With the Santos Group reporting it is three weeks from stocking two new barns with livestock in Lyle Township, Rysavy said he will make a decision as soon as possible. No matter the ruling, Rysavy said, he plans to issue a scheduling order related to a civil trial for a permanent injunction.

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Lowell Franzen, the county’s lone feedlot officer who has been on paid administrative leave since Aug. 3 until the county ends an internal investigation, attended the hearing. He sat in a corner behind the defense table, leaving after the plaintiffs cleared out.

Franzen, who hasn’t returned requests for comment, walked out without commenting, going a different way than the plaintiffs.

A group of 18 county citizens has a lawsuit pending that alleges Franzen illegally approved his own feedlot proposal for about 14 acres, misrepresented his plan and sold it this spring for a profit of nearly $250,000 to the Santos Group, which owns Holden Farms, a large pork producer in Northfield, Minn.

The complaint is against Mower County and Franzen — in his official county role and individually — as well as the Santos Group.

The group says Franzen obtained a feedlot permit from the state in late March. About two weeks later, Franzen sold the property to the Santos Group, which got the feedlot permit transferred several days later.

Attorneys on both sides debated the importance of two county permits issued by Franzen in October 2006 for his feedlot. The permits came before a state environmental review on it.

Jim Peters, an attorney for the citizens group, said Franzen misrepresented his project and used his county position to earn a lot of money with the property’s sale. The project’s animal units — stated as 1,996 — will be more than 2,000, he said, requiring a county conditional-use permit.

Dustan Cross, an attorney for the Santos Group, said Franzen’s property increased in value based on future development. "It was not a bribe in any way, shape or form," Cross said.

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Cross disputed claims that the project will have more than 2,000 animal units.

The state pollution agency signed the environmental review, not Franzen, Cross said, adding that it’s the same project as Franzen’s. He said none of the plaintiffs filed complaints in the environmental review.

Peters argued that Franzen had authority over the plaintiffs with feedlots. Santos Group was "buying that intimidation," he said.

Santos Group has spent more than $5 million on building the facilities, he said. The gestation barn is nearly complete and the farrowing barn is in the works.

There will be serious issues if construction is halted, Cross said. He asked the judge, if there’s a temporary stoppage, to order the plaintiffs post a $5 million bond to cover damages experienced during a delay by the Santos Group if the injunction is erroneous.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs asked for no bond or, at most, a nominal bond, saying the damage estimate is based on a permanent halt.

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