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Growing a crop of houses
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Central Minnesota farmer Kent Kelly says he wants to get all he can out of his land's value. Kelly wants the local township board to let him plot six homesites in this field. Some of Kelly's neighbors are opposed to the plan. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
Some Stearns County farmers are upset with a neighbor's plans for his land. A dairy farmer north of Melrose wants permission to do something unusual. He'd like to seed a crop of houses where corn and soybeans would usually grow. The landowner says because of the slumping farm economy, it's the best way to make money from his dairy farm. His neighbors say houses don't belong in a farm field in the middle of prime dairy country. The issue is forcing Stearns County officials to plan for future development.

Melrose, Minn. — Central Minnesota's Millwood Township has been dairy country for as long as anyone can remember. Dairy farms dominate the gently rolling landscape 30 miles west of St. Cloud.

But one farmer thinks a small part of this land could be used for something else. Kent Kelly has owned a dairy farm here for over twenty years. Now he wants the township to let him to plot out space for a cluster of six houses on bare farmland at the intersection of two country roads.

Kelly claims he won't develop this land into a new neighborhood. But when sells the farm it'll be worth more.

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Image Kent Kelly

"Sit down and figure it out! Six lots worth $35,000 apiece, versus regular farmland at, maybe, $2,000. If you've got any business sense about you, you're going protect those six building sites. I'm only doing good business," Kelley says.

Kelly's farm neighbors say that may be his right, but they don't think it's a good idea.

Sam Salzl owns a dairy about a quarter-mile away. Salzl says the proposed development sits on rich, tillable soil that should be left as farmland,

"This a strong agricultural area and we don't believe that the homes belong in this area. This is good, productive land. We have good farmers around here that can continue to farm and we think the homes belong somewhere else in the county," Salzl says.

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Image Not in our big backyard

Salzl says this is where farmers work. And that means lots of dust, noise and odors.

Tim Kerfeld, who owns a dairy nearby and farms land across the road from the proposed site, is worried that if houses are built here, the new residents might not be accustomed to the realities of living in the country.

"We've got manure to haul across almost all of these fields whenever it sees fit for us to haul. That could be holidays and that could be weekends. That's some of our concerns. It only takes one person to raise a question and you got the whole group messed up," Kerfeld says.

Kerfeld and Salzl say they want the township board or the county to stop Kelly's efforts to plot home sites on his land.

But what Kelly is doing is legal, although his proposal may be the last of its kind.

The Stearns County Board has noticed the controversy in Millwood Township. They've put a one-year moratorium on similar proposals so they can study the issue.

Stearns County Commissioner Don Otte says he doesn't know what the county should do. Otte says because the proposal is on good farmland, the county could probably put a stop to it.

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Image Stearns County Commissioner Don Otte

"Legally we could probably do it. But I guess I'm a rights guy. You own land and you have a right to ownership and that's what the United States is based on, I don't want to take all of those rights away," Otte said.

Otte says a better approach is to see this controversy as a wake-up call. He says development is coming to rural parts of Stearns County and it can't be stopped. So instead of shutting down all development of farm land, the county should prepare homeowners moving into rural areas. Otte says the first step should be to stop frivolous lawsuits against farmers who are just doing their work.

"We could say 'You're out in the country and the frivolous lawsuit isn't going to be tolerated' and if you do get it to court the judge is going to read this ordinance and say 'Go back home, the farmer's doing his job, he's doing a good job.'"

Stearns County officials hope to find a way to balance the rights of landowners, while preserving valuable farm land for as long as possible. They admit that won't be easy under the growing pressure of development.

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