A Winona County board acted with bias in denying a dairy farm's request to expand, a state judge ruled, renewing the prospect for a family to make its 160-year-old business last for another generation.

District Judge Kevin Mark, in a summary judgment delivered from the bench during a hearing via Zoom on Monday, found that documents showed the Winona County Board of Adjustment prejudged a request by Daley Farms of Lewiston to increase its herd size from 1,500 to 4,500 cows.

Mark ordered attorneys for the county and dairy to submit new written arguments before he decides what to do next. Mark could order the board to look at the Daley Farms request anew or he could simply grant the variance to county regulations outright.

"We believe that the case law would provide that the appropriate remedy is for the judge to order Winona County to grant the variance," said Matt Berger, a New Ulm-based attorney who represents the dairy.

The farm is run by the fifth- and sixth-generation descendants of John Daley, an Irish immigrant who settled in Winona County in the 1860s. Daley Farms produces corn and hay on 3,500 acres in addition to milk. The business employs about two dozen people including family members.

To generate enough revenue for the youngest generation to stay in business and cover the retirement of their parents and grandparents, the family developed a plan to triple the size of the dairy operation, adding barns, milking facilities and a manure basin. With the expansion, Daley Farms would rank among the largest dairy operations in the state.

In 2019, they asked the Board of Adjustment for a variance from a county zoning ordinance that caps feedlots at 1,500 animal units. But the plan drew opposition from several environmental groups, including the Land Stewardship Project, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization that generally opposes large-scale farming.

Three of the five members of the Board of Adjustment were members of the Land Stewardship Project. When one of them left the board, the organization actively recruited other members in the county to apply for the board. The organization also opposed the expansion through the farm's permitting process with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

In a statement posted on its website Tuesday afternoon, the Land Stewardship Project said it is "extremely concerned" the judge's ruling would have a "chilling effect on citizen civic engagement in Winona County and beyond."

"This lawsuit is an attempt to distract from the unwanted and destructive project by attacking people who dare question the wisdom of letting an industrialized operation threaten the future of an entire community for generations to come," the organization said.

Ben Daley, part of the fifth generation owners of the business, said even if Daley Farms gets the variance, there are several other permitting processes it faces before it can expand. "We're pretty excited that at least the judge saw the bias," he said.

A representative of the Winona County Attorney's Office did not return a call for comment Tuesday.

Evan Ramstad • 612-673-4241