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

Dakota Access LLC denied this week that the company is violating North Dakota’s anti-corporate farming law, arguing the statute is unconstitutional.

The pipeline company filed an answer Tuesday to a lawsuit from Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem that alleges Dakota Access is breaking the law by still owning a Morton County ranch the company acquired during pipeline protests.

North Dakota law prohibits corporations and limited liability companies from owning or leasing farmland and ranchland except under certain exemptions.

Dakota Access argues the lawsuit should be dismissed because the Cannonball Ranch continues to operate as a ranch, with the pipeline company leasing it to the previous owners.

The company also argues that North Dakota’s corporate farming law violates clauses of the U.S. Constitution related to interstate commerce and equal protection of the law.

Dakota Access said in the court filing it bought more than 7,000 acres from David and Brenda Meyer in September 2016 while the pipeline was under construction to protect the safety of workers and further the efforts of law enforcement personnel.

The company argues it qualifies for an industrial and business purpose exemption within the state’s corporate farming law.

The Attorney General’s Office had no comment Wednesday on the answer from Dakota Access, said spokeswoman Liz Brocker.

Under an arrangement with the state, Dakota Access had agreed to sell the property by Dec. 31, 2017, and later obtained an extension through June 30. Dakota Access requested a second extension on June 25, and Stenehjem filed the lawsuit about a week later in Morton County District Court.

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

The state is seeking a judge to order Dakota Access to sell the land, requesting a deadline no later than one year. The state also seeks a $25,000 civil penalty and additional fines if the company fails to meet deadlines set by the court.

David Meyer told the Bismarck Tribune earlier this month that he hopes to purchase the land back from Dakota Access and was waiting to hear from the company. Meyer said he continues to use the land as a buffalo ranch.

The $3.8 billion pipeline has been operational since June 2017. The main protest camp was cleared in February 2017.

In the court document, Dakota Access points out that the company has contributed tens of millions of dollars to state agencies and affiliated institutions for the betterment of North Dakota.

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

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