Grant County struggles with CAFOs

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Farm Forum

Grant County is in the grip of a political and agricultural drama that has pitted neighbors against neighbors and has plastered the county with signs demanding a ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ vote on a revised ordinance regarding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).

Debates over CAFOs have been raging in the county for years, and the current spat began early in 2015 when the Grant County Board of Commissioners asked the Grant County Planning and Zoning Commission to look at the county’s rules regarding the placement of such operations in relation to homes.

Over the following months, public meetings were held regularly to discuss peoples’ concerns with CAFOs and the rules governing them, which were largely unchanged since the 1990s. Eventually, revisions to the existing ordinance were drafted, increasing the total distance that new or expanding CAFOs must be away from neighboring homes.

On March 1, the commissioners unanimously approved the revisions, changing the rules so that CAFOs with more than 7,000 animal units (a measure of how much waste is produced) must be at least one mile away from a home; those with 5,000 to 6,999 units must be three-quarters of a mile from a home; those with 3,500 to 4,999 must be two-thirds of a mile from a home; those with 1,000 to 1,999 units must be one-half mile from a home; and those with less than 1,000 animal units can be progressively closer to a home – as little as 660 feet away if the operation has less than 350 animal units.

Previously, the ordinance called for a distance of one-half mile from homes, regardless of the size of the feeding operation.

The revision has other specifications about distance, including a requirement that CAFOs, regardless of size, be at least 500 feet away from a private well and 1,000 feet from a public well. Larger operations also would have to be at least 500 feet from a lake or stream, while smaller ones could be as close as 200 feet.

The rules would allow CAFOs to be placed or expanded into areas closer to neighboring homes only if permission was granted by the neighbor.

The opposition to the revisions quickly mobilized and gathered signatures to have the revisions pushed to a public vote. On April 4, the petitions were submitted, with more than 150 signatures over the requirement. The following day, the commissioners met and accepted the petitions, referring the vote to the primary election of June 7.

Since then, Grant County has become a hotbed of debate regarding the placement of CAFOs in regard to neighboring properties and water sources. The group most in favor of the ordinance revision is the Grant County Concerned Citizens (GCCC), which has been rallying in favor of a harder stance on CAFOs for several years.

To help promote their cause, GCCC has set up a superPAC to help finance advertising for their ‘YES’ campaign. Part of the reason for setting up a superPAC, organizers said, was to allow the donations to remain anonymous and protect donors from potential repercussions.

For the concerned citizens, the argument for stronger restrictions on CAFO placement is multi-faceted. The group argues that neighbors of CAFOs have a right to be free of the burdens the operations place on neighboring properties, that CAFOs cause an inordinate amount of smell, and that they are serious polluters.

“If we don’t want it, why should we have to put up with it?” Vince Meyer, president of GCCC asked.

Meyer said that the CAFOs put out a vast quantity of animal waste and are inconsiderate to those who live nearby.

“That’s a lot of waste that you’ve got to get rid of,” Meyer said. “The smell will affect people’s ability to do things outside.”

The possibility that additional traffic associated with the feeding operations will cause deterioration of county roads is another concern, Meyer said, and he questioned whether such operations should be able to grow to infinitely large proportions.

“How big is big enough?” he asked.

For concerned citizen Gerry Adolph, the possibility that CAFOs could overuse water resources also is concerning.

“If you have a dry year, where the aquifer doesn’t charge quickly, then there’s the potential that other users will see their water availability decrease.”

The waste produced by CAFOs is also worrisome for Adolph. A 5,500 cow dairy, she said, will produce as much waste as a city of 200,000 people, making the placement of them near peoples’ homes troubling, he said.

Mark Leddy, CEO of Valley Queen Cheese of Milbank and a vocal opponent of the ordinance revisions, sees nothing but problems in the ordinances. His main concern is that CAFO operators lose their property rights and fall victim to the whims of their neighbors.

“The neighbor now becomes judge, jury and executioner,” Leddy said.

Leddy believes that the measure will be voted down on June 7. The ordinance itself amounts to an unconstitutional taking of land rights, he said, and he believes that a court would overturn it if the voters did approve it.

Voters in Grant County who are against the ordinance, Leddy believes, constitute a “silent majority,” standing in contrast to the vocal GCCC, who he believes represent the minority.

In response to the arguments that neighbors of CAFOs will suffer from smells and other CAFO-associated problems, Leddy questioned whether non-farmer neighbors of CAFOs need to be living in the countryside in the first place, and suggested that rural areas should be the domain of agriculture.

The argument that neighboring property values plummet when a CAFO appears nearby is a “fallacy,” Leddy said.

“(There is) absolutely zero evidence of that being true,” he said.

In some cases, Leddy said property values near CAFOs can actually go up, thanks to the readily available supply of manure to fertilize fields.

Rumors that fish and other life in the nearby Yellow Bank River were killed off years ago by agricultural activities such as CAFO operations are a “concocted story,” Leddy said. He believes the death of the Yellow Bank River was probably caused by things other than feeding operations and said GCCC has little scientific basis for the majority of their claims.

Meyer, the Concerned Citizens president, would beg to differ. As a boy, he said that he fished in the Yellow Bank regularly, but he believes uncontrolled pollution and runoff killed the fish some years ago. Other GCCC members share his feeling that the Yellow Bank was killed by agricultural runoff, and that other water sources are in similar danger.

As Grant County’s primary industry is agriculture, Leddy said any attempts to inhibit agriculture or its ability to grow and flourish will be damaging to the county.

Having these new regulations in place will constrict the ability of CAFO operators to expand operations, Leddy said, and could represent a burden of sorts for his own business, as it could mean longer hauls to bring milk to the Valley Queen factory.

Kevin Souza, the owner of Victory Farms near Milbank, fears his operation’s ability to expand could be jeopardized by the revised ordinance.

“It limits our ability to expand,” he said. “It puts it in someone else’s hands.”

The ability of the public to decide this issue is a good thing for the county, Souza said.

“We always wanted it to come to a vote,” he said. Souza also expressed his hope that tensions about the issue do not cause division between friends and neighbors in the county.

Joelie Hicks, secretary of the GCCC, says that it would have been easier for the group had the commissioners’ revisions not been referred to the June 7 ballot, but she is optimistic about what the voters will decide.

“They (commissioners) voted unanimously to accept it,” Hicks said. “It would’ve been easier for us had it not been referred by a different group, but since we originally wanted a vote, it will be interesting to see what happens when the people speak. We’ll accept what the people say.”

Meyer believes that the voters of Milbank likely support the ‘YES’ campaign, though he is concerned that some members of the community who are less familiar with the situation could be misled or misunderstand the issue, and what ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ actually mean.

“It’s confusing for them,” he said.

Both sides of the issue are using the phrase “Support the growth of livestock and dairy” in their respective campaigns. A “yes” vote is for approval of the more-restrictive rules passed by the county commissioners. A “no” vote would reject the new restrictions.