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Critics raise stink over Mower County hog farm deal

In southeast Minnesota's Mower County, it appears that one way to skirt prohibitive feedlot regulations is to find a job enforcing them.

Critics there claim Lowell Franzen, the county's feedlot officer, approved his own 6,600-hog operation last fall and then wrote for himself the building permits to start construction.

Documents in a lawsuit filed by a group of neighbors against both him and the county show that Franzen already had started building the feedlot by the time the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency approved it in March. The plaintiffs have asked a judge to revoke the permits, following communications from both the state attorney general's office and the pollution control agency that agree the permits were issued prematurely.

Those involved with the case say the FBI is investigating claims that the payment Franzen took for his newly permitted land — about 14 acres of undeveloped farmland — constitutes a bribe. (The Minneapolis FBI office, whose job routinely involves investigating such allegations, won't confirm or deny its involvement.)

Property value at issue
The land's market value, based on recent county sales of similar land, is about $49,000. Franzen sold his property to Holden Farms for $292,000, a nearly quarter-million-dollar profit. Opponents say that premium means Holden Farms (a highly scrutinized corporation affiliated with the Northfield, Minn.-based Santos Group) essentially paid Franzen, a longtime county resident, because of its belief that he would likely have an easier time getting the operation approved.

It is hard to prove, however, that land sale profit equals bribe. These days, farmers, particularly those adjacent to expanding suburbs or rural cities, sell off land to developers all the time at seemingly absurd premiums.

Franzen's lawyer did not return phone calls requesting comment. Dustan Cross, an attorney for the Santos Group, said the bribery allegations have "no factual basis" and that the corporation, which has invested $6.5 million in the project, paid a premium for the land because it was an ideal site for the operation.

And, Cross said: "If my client was bribing Lowell Franzen ... why would we do it in such an open, blatant fashion?"

The Santos Group, one of the top hog producers in the country, has been criticized, though, for obtaining farms in the past under similar circumstances. In 2002 in nearby Winona County, a resident shepherded a 3,200-hog finishing operation through the permitting process and sold it to Holden within a month after it was approved.

Jim Peters, a longtime land-rights attorney who represents the group of Mower County plaintiffs, say another worrisome aspect of the case is Franzen's role as a county official who inspect all county farms. There is no evidence that Franzen even scowled at the neighboring farmers who opposed the project, but his job gives him power to make other farmers' lives more difficult, he said.

Farm, feedlot debates common
These are far from the first allegations of county government skullduggery in approving feedlots in rural Minnesota, where farm size and concerns over potential pollution, road damage and other issues are increasingly sensitive topics. Tensions between officials and residents frequently run high.

I covered a bitter fight in a Dodge County township (west of Rochester) where residents spent four years fighting a proposed 2,000-cow dairy before its New Jersey-based backers abandoned the project. After the township blocked the dairy with its own zoning laws, the backers attempted to have the land annexed by a nearby city, and soon accusations arose of improper relationships between the backers and the city's mayor and some of its council members.

And in Rock County in 2002, the county's land management director admitted to accepting bribes in exchange for ignoring a hog operation's illegal waste dumping and was sentenced to three years' supervised release and community service.

These cases have provided fodder for state environmental groups and agriculture policy watchdogs who have criticized Minnesota's practice of attaching feedlot permits to sites, rather than to operators. They argue that it makes it easy for large food and agriculture corporations to exploit the process by purchasing an operation after asking local farmers to get the required county and state approvals.

The county has placed Franzen on administrative leave while it conducts its own internal investigation. The Santos Group, meanwhile, has nearly finished construction on the operation, Cross said, and plans to open the site soon.

Peters said the case, regardless of its outcome, will continue to reverberate in southeast Minnesota and across the state.

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