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Vasgaard v. Murray County Board of Commissioners

August 19, 2003

CHARLES VASGAARD, ET AL., APPELLANTS, ELLSBOROUGH LUTHERAN CHURCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
MURRAY COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS, ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



Murray County District Court File No. C202190

Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Shumaker, Judge, and Halbrooks, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Halbrooks, Judge

Reversed

UNPUBLISHED OPINION

Appellants challenge respondent Murray County Board of Commissioners' denial of their petition to have an environmental assessment worksheet prepared for the feedlot expansion proposed by Chad Bonnstetter. Because we conclude that the board acted unreasonably, arbitrarily, and capriciously in denying appellants' petition, we reverse.

FACTS

Chad Bonnstetter owns and operates a farm in Murray County. Before 2002, Bonnstetter operated a hog feedlot on his farm with approximately 300 hogs that were kept in an open lot. In 2002, Bonnstetter moved forward with plans to enlarge his hog feedlot operation.*fn1 The plans included constructing an 81-foot by 200-foot building that would house 2,000 finishing hogs (55-300 pounds) for finishing to slaughter. The building would be ventilated with fans that would circulate air through the length of the building and vent outside. Beneath the building would be a large concrete-lined eight-foot-deep manure pit that would collect the manure from the hogs. Once a year, likely in the fall, the manure pit would be pumped, and the manure would be knifed*fn2 into the ground on the surrounding farmland.

On June 18, 2002, appellants Charles Vasgaard, Joan Vasgaard, Duane Timmerman, Amanda Timmerman, Clare Feste, Maria Feste, Curtis Feste, Deborah Feste, Clarence Fest, Gladys Feste, and Chad McBeth, neighbors of Bonnstetter, submitted a citizen petition for an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. The petition asserted that Bonnstetter's proposed feedlot expansion may have the potential for significant environmental effects and requested that an EAW be prepared for the project. An EAW is a brief document designed to set out the basic facts necessary to determine whether a more in-depth environmental impact statement is necessary for a project. Minn. Stat. § 116D.04, subd. 1a(c) (2002). The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board designated respondent Murray County as the responsible governmental unit (RGU) for environmental review of the project under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 116D.01-.11 (2002), and referred the petition to the Murray County Board of Commissioners (board) for consideration.

The board held a hearing to consider the EAW petition on August 6, 2002. The parties made written submissions, and interested persons presented their arguments to the board at the hearing. The board then issued its findings of fact, conclusions of law, and order, finding that the evidence does not show that Bonnstetter's proposed feedlot expansion may have the potential for significant environmental effects and denying appellants' petition for an EAW. Appellants filed a complaint with the district court, asserting that the board acted arbitrarily and capriciously in denying their petition for an EAW and requesting that the court order the board to have an EAW prepared. Appellants moved for summary judgment. Relying largely on the deferential standard of review, the district court denied appellants' motion and held that the board was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This appeal follows.

DECISION

I. Standard of Review

In reviewing a decision of a governmental body, this court focuses on the proceedings before the decision-making body and not on the findings of the district court. Carl Bolander & Sons v. City of Minneapolis, 502 N.W.2d 203, 207 (Minn. 1993). "[W]e review the governmental body's determination on the basis of whether it was unreasonable, arbitrary, or capricious." Id. (citation omitted). A decision is arbitrary and capricious if the governmental body:

(a) relied on factors not intended by the legislature; (b) entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem; (c) offered an explanation that runs counter to the evidence; or (d) the decision is so implausible that it could not be explained as a difference in view or the result of the agency's expertise.

White v. Minn. Dep't of Natural Res., 567 N.W.2d 724, 730 (Minn. App. 1997) (citation omitted), review denied (Minn. Oct. 31, 1997). A governmental body's decision is also arbitrary and capricious if a decision represents its will, rather than its judgment. Trout Unlimited, Inc. v. Minn. Dep't of Agric., 528 N.W.2d 903, 907 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. Apr. 27, 1995). We apply the arbitrary-and-capricious standard by determining whether there is substantial evidence supporting the governmental body's findings. Iron Rangers for Responsible Ridge Action v. Iron Range Res., 531 N.W.2d 874, 880 (Minn. App. 1995), review denied (Minn. July 28, 1995). Substantial evidence is defined as:

1. Such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion;

2. More than a scintilla of evidence;

3. More than some ...


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