Settlement spells relief for both sides in dairy litigationPLANKINTON — After a decade of fighting in court, Aurora County officials and the owners of Thompson Farms are both relieved.
By: Chris Mueller, The Daily Republic
PLANKINTON — After a decade of fighting in court, Aurora County officials and the owners of Thompson Farms are both relieved.
On Friday, Aurora County officials announced the county has agreed to pay Thompsons Farms and its owners, Keith and Paul Thompson, $1.281 million to settle a lawsuit over a 1998 county zoning ordinance restricting dairy cow numbers. The settlement ends what has been a long and expensive legal battle for both sides.
“It was a gratified relief,” said Keith Thompson in an email response sent Monday to The Daily Republic. “Now we don’t have to wonder or worry about what the county will come up with next in our case.”
Thompson stopped short of calling the settlement fair, but said it was “acceptable.” Two prior attempts to settle the case — first early this spring and again this summer — both failed, he said.
Aurora County Commissioner Pat Cranny declined to comment on the settlement when contacted Monday by The Daily Republic. Cranny said the commissioners agreed Aurora County State’s Attorney John Steele would handle all questions from the media about the settlement.
“I think it’s always a relief when a lawsuit comes to an end to someone intensely involved in it,” Steele said.
Though Steele declined to speculate on what motivated the commission to settle the case now, he believes the commission feels it is a fair settlement.
The case itself centered on a zoning ordinance limiting the number of animals allowed at animal-feeding operations, including dairies. The Thompsons successfully argued in court that the ordinance damaged the value of their operation and forced them to sell their multimillion-dollar dairy. The Thompsons had invested money into expanding the dairy before the ordinance was enacted. The dairy was located about three miles north of Storla.
Keith Thompson is hopeful the case will spur other counties to use “competent legal advice, scientific-based research and common sense” when developing ordinances, especially when dealing with the rights of farmers and ranchers.
“We felt it was our ethical obligation to our family and other livestock producers,” Thompson said of persisting in the legal battle with the county.
“There are no hard feelings,” he said, but added he and his brother are disappointed with how the county handled the “initiation, writing and handling,” of the ordinance.
Steele said the commissioners have discussed amending the ordinance, but added that “nothing has been written up and no decision has been made” at this point.
According to a news release issued by Aurora County, the final settlement amount of $1,281,355.10 must be paid within 90 days. The Thompsons agreed to waive post-judgment interest for 60 days as part of the settlement.
Because county officials failed to provide timely notice of the lawsuit years ago to the county’s insurer, the insurer has been released from liability for the damages. That means the county itself is on the hook to pay the settlement.
Steele said Aurora County will pay off the settlement by issuing judgment bonds — a special type of general obligation bond the county can issue when a judgment is rendered against it, Steele said. The bonds are non-referable, meaning the public will not be able to vote on the bonds, and the amount of the obligation cannot be referred to a public vote.
The commission has already agreed to hire a Minnesota firm to serve as bond counsel.
If the process of issuing the bonds cannot be completed at the commission’s regular meetings, Steele said special meetings could be held.