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A sign for the Cannonball Ranch sits near the site of a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The North Dakota Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Dakota Access LLC, alleging the company is in violation of the state’s anti-corporate farming law.

The company purchased much of the Cannonball Ranch north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in fall of 2016, when pipeline protests were ongoing in the area.

State law prohibits corporations and limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland and ranchland unless the land is necessary for commercial development.

Dakota Access had agreed to sell the property by June 30 in an agreement with the Attorney General’s Office, but missed that deadline and recently asked for a one-year extension.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the complaint filed in Morton County District Court seeks a judge to order Dakota Access to sell the approximately 6,000 acres.

“DAPL’s continued ownership of the land constitutes a continuing violation of state law,” the complaint states.

The complaint asks the court to set a deadline but requests that it be no longer than one year.

The state also is seeking a $25,000 civil penalty from Dakota Access for violating state law, as well as an additional $25,000 penalty if the company fails to meet deadlines set by the court.

The previous landowner, David Meyer, leases the property from Dakota Access and continues to use the land as a buffalo ranch.

Even though the use of the property hasn’t changed, it’s still a violation of state law for Dakota Access to own the land, Stenehjem said.

Meyer said Monday he hopes to purchase the land back from Dakota Access.

“I’m planning on repurchasing it, but I have not heard from them,” Meyer said. “We haven’t heard anything.”

Initially, Dakota Access agreed to sell the land by Dec. 31, 2017, but obtained an extension through June 30.

In a letter dated June 25, Dakota Access attorney Lawrence Bender requested a second extension. The Bismarck Tribune obtained a copy of the two-page letter, but most of it is redacted under a provision in the state open records law that protects trade secrets or proprietary information.

Dakota Access has been required to submit periodic updates to the state related to efforts to sell the property, but the content of those is also heavily redacted under the exception in the open records law.

Stenehjem said the redacted information describes the efforts Dakota Access has made to sell the property.

“It appears to me they have been diligently attempting to sell it,” Stenehjem said.

Bender said Tuesday the company had not yet seen the complaint. He declined to answer a question about the company's efforts to sell the land. 

Dakota Access asserted in the fall of 2016 that the land purchase was temporarily necessary to provide a safe environment for workers in light of protests at and near pipeline construction areas.

Stenehjem’s office reviewed the land purchase and reached an agreement in November 2016 that said the state would not enforce the corporate farming law as long as Dakota Access made periodic updates and sold the property by the state’s deadline. The company agreed it would not use the statute of limitations as a defense. That agreement is now expired.

The main Dakota Access protest camp was cleared in February 2017 and the pipeline has been operational since June 2017.

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(Reach Amy Dalrymple at 701-250-8267 or Amy.Dalrymple@bismarcktribune.com)

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