Dan Ryan was out working on his farm when he saw a car drive down a dead-end road skirting his property. A woman eventually got out and began to scan the terrain with binoculars. Then she drove onto a private road owned by Ryan.
What happened next was a matter of debate in a recent Hennepin County Court hearing that underscored the escalating tension between some farmers in Goodhue County and AWA Goodhue Wind, a company that wants to install 50 wind turbines on 12,000 acres near Red Wing.
The woman in the car was Brie Anderson, a field ecologist who was working for AWA. She said she was looking for evidence indicating whether those opposed to the wind development were putting down bait for eagles to draw more of them into the area.
The number of eagles in the area could be a key to whether AWA will be one of the nation's first companies to get a federal license to legally kill or injure a specified number of them. The strategy is meant to compromise between environmental concerns and promoting alternative energy. The issue has stalled the project for a year as AWA creates a plan to protect eagles and other animals from the turbines.
Ryan is one of several farmers who signed leases with the wind company in 2008, but later terminated them because stipulations in the contracts were not being followed. Whether those contracts are legal will be decided in an upcoming trial. Meanwhile, the wind company is not allowed on the properties.
The way the wind company is behaving is not creating a lot of friends near Red Wing.
According to Ryan's lawyer, Daniel Schleck, people working under contract from AWA have trespassed several times on the farmer's land. Ryan has asked them to leave, or to notify him ahead of time so he could escort them. Ryan raises cattle in quarantine to be sold to Turkey. Trespassers can compromise his regulations and potentially ruin his sale to that country.
On March 5, Anderson drove onto Ryan's property, saying she thought it was a public road. She accused Ryan of blocking her way out with his trailer, then screaming at her as she sat in her car. She got a temporary restraining order and filed harassment charges.
Schleck believes the wind company is funding Anderson's legal expenses. Anderson's lawyer, Emily Duke, said she -- Duke -- wasn't being paid by the wind company.
Schleck said Ryan calmly asked her to leave, and that photos show she could have easily driven away. Ryan went back to his cab, and as instructed by the Goodhue County Sheriff, called authorities.
A sheriff's deputy on the scene found no evidence of assault and declined to charge Ryan. A Hennepin County referee recently agreed in an order for dismissal that Anderson "clearly had the ability to drive off if she wanted to," and that there was "clearly no physical assault here."
Furthermore, the referee called Anderson's behavior "intrusive and unwanted," and suggested Ryan's attorney ask that the company pay his legal bills.
"In all my years practicing law, that has never happened," said Schleck.
"To me, this appears to be an attempt to intimidate farmers," said Schleck. "The judge seemed ticked off" that they were using bogus harassment charges to gain access to Ryan's land or scare him into settling. Ryan's family has farmed the land since Abraham Lincoln was president.
Duke, the Fredrikson and Byron attorney representing Anderson, said the case is between two individuals and that no wind company is a party. The issue is ongoing, so she said she can't comment.
Well, I can. This looks like a slap suit to hassle an honest farmer trying to keep profiteers off his property.
Mary Hartman is a Rochester homemaker who opposes the wind development because of its potential impact on wildlife. She was shocked by the charge against Ryan because "he's the nicest guy in the world."
Hartman said she witnessed another incident of trespassing, and saw Ryan calmly tell the person to "please ask for permission next time you want to go on my property."
Hartman said tensions have increased over the issue because of other suspicious events, including dead piglets that were left on Ryan's farm and alleged incidents of helicopters spooking cattle enough to make them run through fences.
"They seem intent on putting this development in here, despite the fact it's not a good fit and the community doesn't want it," said Hartman. "This is an interesting way to earn good will."