For decades, County Road 2 has represented a tranquil rural existence on the edge of the metro area to Dave and Florence Minar.
Today, a row of steel towers 15 stories tall marches down that road and across the land near New Prague that has been in Dave’s family since 1926, casting a shadow the Minars contend clouds the future of one of the state’s leading organic dairy farms.
The 450-acre Cedar Summit Farm has been organic since 1974, and in addition to the herd of about 130 cows, includes a retail store and a commercial dairy that ships nostalgic cream-on-top milk bottles all across the Midwest.
In Scott County District Court this week, the Minars, who are both in their 70s, will describe their fears that the high-voltage power lines could cause health problems for their cows and scare customers away from visiting the bucolic and pastoral patch of the county.
What they want is for the 11-utility consortium that built the 800-mile line from South Dakota to pay not just for an easement to cross a 132-acre parcel of the farm, but to buy the whole operation — an acquisition that could cost up to $1 million for the land alone.
Although the Legislature has approved “Buy the Farm” laws to require such purchases when a use such as a power line or a pipeline threatens the viability of a family farm, the utilities behind the $2 billion CapX2020 line argue that Cedar Summit Farm doesn’t qualify.
In a written statement e-mailed on Friday, the power-line builders said that they “have challenged the reasonableness [of the buyout] because it involves only one transmission structure that occupies less than one acre on a 132-acre property that includes a commercial dairy operation and retail store.”
Citing what they called Minnesota’s “unique law” forcing buyouts, the utilities argued that “commercial land is not eligible” and that “the Supreme Court has held that a reasonableness requirement” — that is, how much of a person’s land is really affected — “must be read into the statute.”
The 345,000-volt line itself will not be complete and transmitting energy until next year, said Mary Sandok, spokeswoman for Xcel Energy, one of the firms behind it.
The case is going to court, the utilities said in a written statement, because if landowners and utilities cannot agree on a farmer’s decision to seek a buyout, “they seek guidance from the district court.”
The Minars, however, are particularly frustrated to find themselves forced into court just a year after they thought they had scored a legislative victory supporting their stand.
Clarifying language passed at the State Capitol last year was aimed in part at ensuring the decades-old law — a product of the bitter power-line disputes that roiled Minnesota in the 1970s — covered the Minars.
“This is a regular family farmer who is not litigious and did not ask for this,” said one of their attorneys, Paula Maccabee. “It’s an industrial use on an organic farm, yet they have been climbing hurdle after hurdle just to get what the Legislature says they’re entitled to. This is not the way the law is supposed to work.”
The fundamental point, the Minars and Maccabee say, is that legislators clearly believed that if a corporation makes a dramatic change to one’s land, it’s up to them to buy it and then suffer whatever loss of value by placing it on the market for buyers who don’t care that the line is there.
Key legislators who pushed last year’s action agree.
“I don’t question the need for the line, but I’m on the side of people looking at these towers in their back yard,” said state Sen. Kevin Dahle, DFL-Northfield. “Whatever studies may show about dairy cattle weight loss [from the voltage], I just feel a need for fairness for a century-old farm and how it’s treated in terms of someone stepping on their lawn.”
The case is drawing huge interest statewide, said Thom Petersen, lobbyist for the Minnesota Farmers Union.
In a period when all manner of new pipelines and power lines are snaking across Minnesota, “this is a very high-priority issue for us,” he said. “I would love to be able to sit in on it myself. A lot of farmers are watching this case and it will have a big impact on others.”
The Minars’ case also raises issues way beyond those of some farms. It’s close enough to growing New Prague to be lucrative someday for subdivisions.
And it poses a real conundrum in being organic. An organic farmer can’t just vacate and set up anywhere else; it takes years to purify the land to make it qualify as organic.
The Minars’ saga follows by just a few years a parallel narrative at the celebrated Gardens of Eagan, in next-door Dakota County.
Atina Diffley has since written a book published by the University of Minnesota Press detailing the battle to fight off an oil pipeline that threatened the purity of that organic land.
Faced with the mounting pressures capped off by the looming power lines, the owners of Cedar Summit Farm, reluctantly, want out.
“It’s a desecration,” Florence Minar said.