Winona County officials have nixed a major mega-dairy expansion to nearly four times the county's animal limit.

The five-member Winona County Board of Adjustment in southeastern Minnesota voted 2-2 Thursday on whether to deny the variance request, a tie vote that constitutes a denial. The chair of the board had recused himself because he had spoken out against the project prior to joining the board.

The vote is a major blow for Daley Farms of Lewiston. The family dairy operation in Winona County has fought for years to expand amid industry consolidation with fewer, larger farms. The dispute has wound through courts and embodies deep tensions in farm country over the growth of large-scale farming, with opponents saying the practices are too harmful to rural communities and the environment.

Ben Daley, who spoke at Thursday's meeting, could not immediately be reached for comment. He told the board that dairy farmers compete in a global commodity market and that the variance would allow the milking operation "to continue for another generation."

The Daleys had asked for a variance to expand to 5,968 animal units — about 3,901 dairy cows and 525 heifers — a total significantly higher than the county's limit of 1,500 animal units per feedlot.

Matthew Berger, a lawyer for the family, told the board the cap on herd size has hurt the county's farm economy. The cap was enacted in 1998. The number of dairy farms in the county has dropped from 378 in 1997 to 160 in 2017, he said.

He also said the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determined that the Daley Farms expansion would not have the potential for significant environmental effects.

Citizens concerned about the size of the dairy and its effects on the environment and the health of the surrounding rural community were not allowed to speak at the meeting.

Concern over large feedlots has run particularly high in southeastern Minnesota because of the area's karst topography. The unusually porous rock makes it easy for animal manure applied to fields for fertilizer to contaminate groundwater and wells with nitrate, which can be toxic and even deadly for infants, and the region suffers from generally higher nitrate levels.

The county is among several in Minnesota that cap animal units on feedlots, but most of the limits tend to be about 2,000 to 3,000 animal units.

Board Member Elizabeth Heublein said during the meeting that she voted to deny the Daley Farms request mainly due to water quality concerns. The local aquifers and many local drinking water wells are already contaminated with nitrate, she said, and she could not justify granting an exception that would add to the load. People need to think harder about what the bottom line means, she said.

"We always think about what it's going to cost or what it's going to make," she said. "It's time that we reflect on that and move in a direction where the bottom line is not one but three: our community, our ecology and our economics."

Heublein and the other board member who voted against the variance, Kelsey Fitzgerald, both indicated during the meeting that they support the Land Stewardship Project. The Minnesota nonprofit advocates for sustainable land use and has an office in Lewiston. Fitzgerald said she is a member.

Paul Reuvers, an attorney representing Winona County in the litigation with the Daley family, said he was not surprised the request for a variance failed.

"They are asking for almost a quadrupling of the animal unit cap in the county," Reuvers said. "They're essentially trying to rewrite the ordinance."

Reuvers said he expects the Daleys to appeal and that the matter will be back in Winona County District Court because there is already an open court file.

Tim Ahrens, who runs a printing business near Altura in Winona County, helped organize a recent petition drive to show support for the county's existing feedlot limit. They collected more than 165 signatures. The denial was the right decision, he said, but the tie surprised him because the animal unit cap is "pretty clear law."

"I wish it could be some closure and we could bring forward some collaboration on a food system that works for everybody," he said.

It's the second time the Daleys' variance application has failed.

The Board of Adjustment also rejected the request in 2019, and the Daley family sued Winona County. The family accused the board of bias because some of the members were affiliated with the Land Stewardship Project.

A District Court judge agreed the board's decision showed bias. The family then sought a Court of Appeals decision to direct the variance be granted, but that court said the Daleys' request had to go back to the Board of Adjustment for reconsideration. The board's makeup has changed since 2019.

Ahrens said he hopes Thursday's second denial bring some closure.

"I hope it's closure, we'll see," he said.