On Monday night, over 55 people gathered at the 4-H Building to give input on possible changes to the planning and zoning regulations.
The Jefferson County Commissioners as well as members of the Jefferson County Planning and Zoning Board were at the meeting, ready to discuss some of the issues with the citizens. At the start of the meeting, Commissioner Michael Dux emphasized that no decision would be made during the forum.
Zoning Administrator John McKee facilitated the discussion, addressing a number of regulations from special use permits for livestock facilities and houses to wind farms.
“Tonight’s input will be taken,” said McKee. “We’re recording it, we’ll write it down. Tonight’s input, from the ideas you think should work, we have to take those to our planners; we have to take them to the state to make sure there’s no statutes involved that allows us not to implement something that you have asked. So, just to let you know up front, a lot of things are going to be talked about this evening; some of them we might be able to implement, some we might not.”
Serving On The Board
A number of people during the meeting asked questions about the planning and zoning board, and how people can join the board. Scott Hahn, and others stated that they would like to see changes to the membership of the board to diversify it.
“One quick suggestion, maybe in the future of the zoning board they’re more representative of the actual population of the county,” said Hahn. “We don’t have any city people on our board, and they all seem to be all livestock people and all rural people from what I can see. […] Our community came together and rised [sic] up and tried to express by every means possible why we didn’t want them in our area. But we got the feeling we were discriminated against, and we actually had no voice in the zoning law process; we had no representation in the zoning law process. I think there should be some kind of safety net for communities that don’t want these type of facilities in them.”
McKee explained that no person from townships can serve on the board due to the fact that each of the communities have their own planning and zoning methods and boards. Rick Siebert asked if towns are able to set their own regulations, and whether those regulations could be applied outside of their jurisdiction. McKee responded that the regulations they set only apply to their communities, and to wellhead protection.
“First of all, what people need to remember is it doesn’t matter who’s on the committee,” Bruce Livingston, Planning and Zoning Board Member, said. “Our job on the committee is to follow the rules. Every one of these hearings that have been presented to us locally, the commissioners have followed the setbacks that are set in place. They’re the rules that you gotta follow, so it doesn’t matter who’s on it, the outcome should be the same, as long as you follow the rules. We gotta remember this is a livestock friendly county and it’s agriculture, and it’s what we do here.”
Stan Stewart, who also serves on the planning and zoning board, expressed some of the difficulties that arose when facing contentious hearings and having to vote based on the regulations.
“You people who haven’t served on that committee don’t know what it’s like to have to vote against something that these people want or vice versa,” said Stewart. “Just to give you an example, the hog confinement over here by Endicott, these people met all the regulations. Our job is to see whether or not those regulations are met. Even though those regulations were met, I sat there, my minister was out there, these supposedly are my friends out here. When you gotta vote yes because that’s the way the rules are written, it’s not easy, so don’t tell me we don’t have compassion. I have said several times this is one committee that I do not like being on.”
McKee and the commissioners invited people to take action by attending the planning and zoning meetings and volunteering to become board members.
A Livestock Friendly County
Richard Kujath voiced his concerns about the county’s Livestock Friendly designation, noting he believes it makes way for large agricultural operations to come to the county.
“My question is, how do we get away from this animal friendly designation for the county?” asked Kujath. “I, for one, feel like I was hoodwinked on that. Animal friendly, oh this is puppies and kittens and horses. No. This was the first step for big confinement operations, whatever they’re gonna be, to come in.”
Dux responded to Kujath’s question, explaining how planning and zoning was formed in the county. He stated that there has been a lack of involvement from citizens for quite a while.
“We started this process in the year 2000, and in the beginning at all the meetings we had in 2000, I was there,” Dux said. “Gale [Pohlmann, Jefferson County Commissioner] was part of the first planning and zoning board. I know we went to Plymouth, I believe we went to Daykin, I know we went to Diller, we came to Fairbury, and there was a lot of people that came to the initial meetings. But then after everything was set up, nobody has come to anything until something has come into their backyard. Nobody was really interested.”
Kujath responded by saying that they were unaware of what the meetings were about. McKee stated that he will research how the county can drop the Livestock Friendly Designation. Pohlmann explained that the designation is part of a state-wide program to promote agriculture in Nebraska.
“This program was started at the state level by the Farm Bureau,” said Pohlmann. “They worked with counties throughout the state to promote agriculture. We are an agriculture state, we are an agriculture county. Not only Jefferson County, but Gage County, Saline County, all of them are livestock friendly counties. You’re in an ag district. What happens in an ag district?”
Kujath stated that he has not seen issues such as this, in the amount of time he’s lived in the agricultural district. He suggested that the commissioners spend time in the area around the facilities to smell the odor for themselves.
Addressing The Issues In The Present
At the meeting, Rick Siebert expressed his discontent with the current planning and zoning regulations, emphasizing that he and others came to make a change.
“I’ve been coming to these meetings for about a year,” Siebert said. “The first thing I hear is ‘well back in 2001 we had these meetings, and some people showed up, and nobody showed up,’ like it’s our fault now that we’re interested, but we didn’t go sooner. We’re here now because we’re concerned.”
He suggested that before changing the distances of setbacks, the planning and zoning board and the commissioners should check into how in other states, are decreasing values on property if they are located near livestock facilities. He encouraged people to visit the Jefferson County Assessors Office to learn about protesting their property valuations.
Brandon Pohlmann stated that he believes that the livestock operations would cover the loss in tax revenue if property valuations were to decrease. He explained that if people choose to live in the country, they should be aware that there is a growing agricultural industry.
“Last year there was almost $20 million in livestock facilities valuation,” said Pohlmann. “Any livestock building going up, I think is going to increase the tax base; it’s going to add value to the land around it, because animals make manure.
“If you want to live in the country, look at what goes on in the country is agriculture,” Pohlmann continued. “We harvest, we make dust, we got livestock, sometimes livestock smells, that’s just part of it. People in Jefferson County have been living in harmony since the 1800s when people came here. There’s no reason we can’t just get along. If you want to live in the country, you just have to accept that there’s going to be parts of it where you know you’ll have to give up some things to live in the country. Otherwise, Lincoln, Omaha, Gretna, there are plenty of places up there; feel free to go relocate.”
Some of the other suggestions people offered to make a change to the planning and zoning regulations include changing the distance on setbacks from livestock facilities, implementing a matrix to determine whether a facility meets the safety requirements and setting expiration dates on special use permits.
The Possibility Of Change
After nearly two hours, the commissioners brought the forum to a close, emphasizing that they will review the suggestions and see what changes they are legally allowed to make. Commissioner Gale Pohlmann stated that people need to be aware that there may be drastic changes to the regulations, or there may be no change at all, depending upon what the planning and zoning board is legally allowed to do.
“Everybody needs to be aware that as the zoning commission looks at these comments that were made tonight, and looks at the present regulations, there’s no guarantee that anything will be changed. They will weigh the pros and cons. They may change some, they may amend some, or they may do nothing at all.”
Commissioner Mark Schoenrock explained that he was grateful to have so many people provide input during the forum and for the opportunity to come together on the issues and discuss them in a peaceful manner.
The next day at the Jefferson County Commissioners meeting, Schoenrock asked Jim Hull, who expressed his concerns about hog confinement facilities at the meeting on Monday and at other hearings, to serve as an alternate on the planning and zoning board. As an alternate, Hull would have the power to vote at any planning and zoning meeting where there is a vacancy.
Hull was grateful for the opportunity to serve, but will have to see if there are any conflicts with his job before committing to serve on the board.
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