Minnesota 'Buy the Farm' ruling puts utility on hook

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A small organic dairy in southern Minnesota has prevailed in forcing a buyout by a utility that's building high-voltage power lines along the property.

The case involving the Cedar Summit Farm near New Prague was seen as an early test of Minnesota's revised "Buy the Farm" law. The ruling, made public Thursday by Scott County Judge Caroline Lennon, applies only to that farm, but other landowners preparing their own legal fights along the route of the CapX2020 line from South Dakota through Minnesota have been watching closely.

David and Florence Minar elected to force a purchase of their legacy farm rather than operate under the new power lines. Lennon ruled they were within their rights to do so and now the utility is on the hook for possibly $1.4 million or more once the case moves into an appraisal phase.

"We're very relieved," David Minar, 73, said Friday. "We're so glad the judge saw the common sense of the law that was intended to help us get out from under the power line."

Minar was born on the farm and says it will be extremely difficult to leave it behind. But he and his wife are searching out new locations to carry on the dairy operation they hope to pass down to their children and grandchildren. It could take years, as wherever the relocate to must be certified as organic and have enough room for 130 cows to graze, a milking parlor and a creamery where they can sell their products on site.

Minnesota's "Buy the Farm" law is supposed to give landowners recourse when utilities try to acquire part of their property for power lines by requiring a fair price if the owner chooses to transfer rights to the parcel. The utility can object, like CapX2020 did in this case.

CapX2020 is an initiative by 11 utilities — including Xcel Energy and Great River Energy — to expand and ensure the reliability of an electrical grid that covers North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Five new transmission lines covering nearly 800 miles, including one 345-kilovolt line that goes from Brookings, South Dakota, to Hampton, Minnesota —and runs right over the Minars' farm.

The utility challenged the buyout on grounds that the line would occupy less than one acre on a 132-acre property and that requiring a total purchase would be unreasonable.

Lennon's 19-page ruling said that the existence of the line "on one portion of the property necessarily affects the entire property which is farmed together for the purpose of producing 100 percent grass-fed organic milk."

CapX2020 spokeswoman Lori Buffington said the utility is reviewing the order and considering its next steps.

Rod Klass, an attorney for the Minars, said he's cautiously optimistic there won't be an appeal.

Thom Peterson, director of government relations for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said other farmers were paying attention to how recent changes to "Buy the Farm" law were interpreted in the courts, especially as more new transmission lines and pipelines are approved.

"I'm hoping this will have a positive impact," Peterson said. "It just shows how landowners need to be treated when they have their land taken for the public good."

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