Rural St. Croix Valley town fights lawsuit over rules for factory farms

Laketown retains legal counsel to respond to challenge of new ordinance by industry group.

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Town of Laketown (Courtesy Lisa Doerr)

A Wisconsin business group representing large industrial livestock facilities has sued the rural town of Laketown, along the St. Croix River north of St. Croix Falls, about rules the town passed to protect itself from proposed hog operations.

But Laketown is not taking it laying down. The town board recently responded to the suit with a forceful filing explaining its justification for new regulations.

“[R]epresentatives of Laketown performed detailed research regarding the critical harms to public health and safety, the environment (air, water, and land) and the economic harm caused by [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs)] and found overwhelming reasonable and scientifically defensible information, some of which Laketown adopted as findings of fact to support the Ordinance,” the town’s attorney wrote in a recent response to the lawsuit.

Laketown’s resolution passing the ordinance recognized the town’s resources, and the risks from CAFOs. They pointed out that all the nearly 1,000 residents of the township depend on groundwater for drinking and other uses, and the local soil, aquifer, and other factors make it especially “susceptible to groundwater pollution.” According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, more than half the town is classified as moderately to highly susceptible, with much of it having groundwater within 20 feet of the surface.

“Runoff from land application of waste and leaks from storage facilities at permitted facilities can cause groundwater contamination,” the town’s research found. “That is of particular concern for residents who rely on private ground wells for drinking water and household use because private wells are not monitored by government agencies to ensure safe levels of pathogens.”

In addition, the entire town drains toward the St. Croix River through tributaries like the Trade River and Wolf Creek. Downstream, Lake St. Croix is listed as impaired for phosphorus, and officials say the Laketown area needs to reduce nutrient discharges by one third to help meet the St. Croix’s restoration goals.

Laketown was one of five that passed similar ordinances in the past year, with one other town in the region still considering it. The rules do not prohibit so-called “factory farms,” but put in place strict requirements for operations in how they manage the massive amounts of manure produced, air pollution, and other impacts.

Laketown’s ordinance lays out numerous requirements for anyone proposing a new livestock facility with more than 1,750 hogs. It requires a license to operate, an application fee of one dollar per animal unit to cover costs of reviewing the application, a waste management plan, requirements for financial assurances to clean up potential pollution, and other permit conditions.

The Wisconsin Manufacturer’s and Commerce trade group and three local plaintiffs allege Laketown doesn’t have the right to do any of that. They point to a “Right to Farm” law in Wisconsin, intended to prevent people from moving next to farms and then attempting to shut them down.

“Under the Siting Law, the Wisconsin Legislature has greatly limited the authority of political subdivisions to impose local requirements on the permitting process for a new or expanded livestock facility,” the group’s initial legal filing said.

While the Wisconsin legislature has restricted how local governments can restrict large-scale livestock operations, the law provides leeway if rules are supported by sound science and research. That’s why Laketown says it is empowered to enact its ordinance.

The town is represented by attorney Andrew Marshall of law firm Bassford Remele. The legal argument boils down to the fact that Wisconsin law prevents local officials from blocking large-scale livestock facilities based on zoning or siting — but allows communities to dictate the terms of how it operates.

“As a threshold matter, Plaintiffs’ Complaint conflates the concept of siting (whether a CAFO can be located on a particular piece of property) with operations (which pertains to the conduct of the CAFO once it starts to function),” Marshall wrote to the court. “The Town of Laketown Ordinance challenged in Plaintiff’s Complaint relates solely to operations, not siting.”

But even if it was intended to restrict where such facilities are located, the attorneys say the extensive research and public process would have supported such rules.

“[T]he reasonable and scientifically defensible findings adopted by Laketown would likely also have been sufficient to support additional regulations regarding the siting process,” the town’s response reads.

The case could have wide-ranging implications in Wisconsin. Experts say industrial agriculture groups are concerned about the precedent it might set.

“They see this ordinance, if not challenged, as something that may become more the norm around the state,” Adam Voskuil, staff attorney for the nonprofit law office Midwest Environmental Advocates, told Grist.

The case has been referred to the Polk County District Court and judge Daniel Tolan. No hearings or other steps have yet been scheduled. Laketown is asking for a jury to dismiss the lawsuit and reimburse the town for legal fees.

Corrections: The number of towns that have passed a CAFO operations ordinance, and the number of hogs that would trigger requirements for a town permit, have been corrected.


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2 responses to “Rural St. Croix Valley town fights lawsuit over rules for factory farms”

  1. Kitsi V Avatar
    Kitsi V

    Thanks for this wonderful article, Greg. We SO appreciate your journalism! Kitsi V

  2. Glen Nelson Avatar
    Glen Nelson

    Very few people want to live within the sacrifice zone of a hog factory. Farmers with 250 cow dairy herds that I’ve talked to have no desire to live in that zone. Yes they fight to keep the regulations that have been grandfathered in, but they were developed in a totally different era of Agriculture. With a legislature that refuses to respond to change, local people have to try to protect themselves and their ecosystem of life.

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Rural St. Croix Valley town fights lawsuit over rules for factory farms