ND Supreme Court mulls corporate ag land ownership

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2009 10:13 AM

Allowing a nonprofit group that develops duck nesting grounds to keep 527 acres of Griggs County property could weaken North Dakota's restrictions on corporate ownership of agricultural land, an attorney told the state Supreme Court.

If Crosslands Inc. can keep its property, other nonprofits could exploit newly created loopholes in North Dakota's anti-corporate farming law to buy up thousands of acres of wetlands and highly erodible cropland with no state government oversight, said Charles Carvell, an assistant attorney general.

During Supreme Court arguments on Tuesday, Carvell asked the justices to reverse a June ruling by Southeast District Judge James Bekken that allowed Crosslands to keep 527 of the 949 acres of land that the Minneapolis nonprofit bought in November 2003. The property is about eight miles north of Cooperstown in east-central North Dakota.

Under state law, nonprofit corporations may buy farm or ranch land for conservation purposes only if the governor approves the sale.

Crosslands, which was founded by Minneapolis gold and silver dealer James Cook, did not seek the governor's endorsement before the sale was consummated. Gov. John Hoeven refused a request to approve the deal retroactively, and Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem sued Crosslands, attempting to force the nonprofit to sell its property.

Bekken, in his ruling, concluded that 267 of Crosslands' 949 Griggs County acres _ including one 84-acre lake _ did not count as farm or ranch land and were not subject to the law. His decision also allowed Crosslands to keep another 260 acres of farmland that was needed to manage the adjacent wetlands.

Crosslands' attorney, Nicholas Vogel, said wetlands that cannot be used to raise crops or graze livestock should not be considered agricultural land.

"No one ... would call a lake, no matter how small, farm land or ranch land," Vogel said in a Supreme Court brief. "Similarly, no one would classify a duck slough that retained water throughout the summer months and into the fall as farm land or ranch land."

In arguments Tuesday, Carvell said most of the Griggs County property was farmland, and said Bekken should have judged it as a single package.

"The district court didn't want to do that," Carvell said. "(Bekken said), 'I'm going to look at this 16 acres, and that 16 acres, and the 80 acres down here, and I'm going to determine whether it's farm land."

The state's divestiture lawsuit against Crosslands originally sought to force it to sell a 320-acre wildlife refuge in Ward County, in northwestern North Dakota, and 480 acres in Cavalier County, on the Canadian border in the northeast, along with the Griggs County property.

Bekken ruled Crosslands could keep the Ward County land because it was donated to the nonprofit rather than purchased, and ordered Crosslands to sell all of its Cavalier County land. Those decisions are not being challenged in the Supreme Court appeal.