After an hour-long discussion with constituents, the Jefferson County Commissioners agreed to approve a special use permit for a hog confinement facility to be located south of Harbine.
The owners of the proposed facility, who received approval earlier this year, applied for another special use permit due to a pending lawsuit from landowners against Jefferson County over the process behind the previous special use permit.
The hearing began with John McKee, Zoning Administrator, reading the minutes from the planning and zoning committee meeting when the special use permit was approved. He noted that many people expressed concerns during the meeting. The committee approved the file with the stipulation that the manure storage unit be at 1,415 feet to the top of the tank to prevent the possibility of infiltration from flood waters.
Tyler Martin, who lives near the proposed facility, asked if it was appropriate to have this hearing prior to the expiration of the protest period for the permit. The commissioners received a protest about the permit.
After discussion between the county attorney and McKee about the regulations guiding the meeting process and the board of adjustment, it was determined that the hearing could proceed with the approval of the commissioners.
The hearing proceeded with Scott Hahn, who owns land near the proposed facility, asking what issues the commissioners consider when approving or denying special use permits.
“Whether or not they are in compliance with the planning and zoning rules,” said Commissioner Michael Dux. “That’s the only thing we have a basis on.”
“Where do we, the common citizens, have a voice in this government?” asked Hahn.
Dux explained that they had the opportunity to let their voice be heard when the zoning regulations were set. Jim Hull, who also lives near the proposed facility, asked about the opportunity to revisit the zoning regulations and the chance for people to play a role in that process. Commissioner Mark Schoenrock responded.
“As part of my periodic visits to the town boards that are in my district, I mentioned to the town board in Endicott that if there is a concern, they can get involved when we go back to visit the county zoning regulations,” said Schoenrock. “That’s a public process, so people from all across the spectrum would have the opportunity to come to that and to review what we currently have and to make any proposals or recommended changes to those regulations. It is the regulation that governs all of us who live in Jefferson County. Hopefully we’ll have more public input!”
Schoenrock emphasized that it is a balancing act because they want to address the concerns of everyone. Hahn stated that he feels his voice is being lost in the process and that he believes the current way things are handled, the zoning regulations outweigh the concerns of the citizens.
Commissioner Gale Pohlmann stated that citizens had another opportunity to have their concerns addressed by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality [DEQ]. Hahn responded that he wrote a letter to the DEQ and has not received a response addressing his concerns about antibiotic-resistant pathogens, endangered species and the risk to wetlands.
“They [DEQ] have reviewed this, and they feel there’s no problem as far as environmental risk,” said Pohlmann. “They generally review the structure of the facilities to make sure there is no contamination. They follow up after construction is done and before they give a permit to make sure the building is constructed right and there is no risk to the environment.”
“I think our DEQ is just a bunch of engineers sitting behind a desk looking at pieces of paper,” Hahn responded. “If they don’t have that piece of paper, they write to someone to get that piece of paper.”
After some more discussion, Hull asked if there are any guidelines to determine whether the best management practices are met by the owners of the facility. Gerald Schmidt, who co-owns the proposed facility, explained that many of those practices are outlined and handled by the DEQ.
“Our job is one thing and one thing only, that is whether or not these permits are compliant with the planning and zoning regs,” said Dux.
Martin believes that there is more that the county can do to address this issue and the concerns of the citizens and that they have the ability to act as a check against the planning and zoning commission.
“There is more to this than simply saying ‘did you meet the specific items?’ They consider most appropriate use of the land, conservation and stabilization of the value of property, promotion of public safety. Those are all valid criteria that the commission can use to determine whether this is or isn’t an appropriate special use permit. The county at present is out of balance on this issue. The commissioners are the only governance check on this process.” said Martin.
Schmidt explained that there are regulations in place to keep the surrounding population safe from harm and that they are monitored to prevent and mitigate any potential accidents. He believes that the hog industry is more regulated than other agricultural industries.
“I don’t see how you can differentiate new agriculture on one side and new agriculture on another,” Schmidt said. “How do you differentiate water that has been polluted by nitrate fertilizers and is unusable in the city, and you say ‘that’s okay because that’s a bunch of little farmers’? We are following the regs, and you are following the regs.
“I wish we had a better site that wasn’t close to anybody,” Schmidt continued, “but the planning and zoning regs push us to certain spots. We knew this was coming. I guess we apologize for being agriculture. I don’t know what else we can say.”
After some more discussion about issues such as taxes, the height of the manure storage the commissioners closed the hearing. Schoenrock moved to approve the permit with the stipulations that the manure storage elevation is over 1,415 feet, there must be a monitoring well with yearly tests, yearly soil testing, that the owners implement the best management practices and that the manure is injected into the soil as close to crop season as possible.
Dux and Schoenrock voted in favor of approving the permit and Pohlmann abstained from the vote due to his relationship with Plymouth Ag Group, which he announced to everyone in attendance.
Schoenrock emphasized that he would like to see more people involved in the discussion about the zoning regulations to help address the concerns of everyone. The date for that review will be announced soon.
“Our objective as a board is to try to find that balance so that we can address the concerns of all of the citizens of Jefferson County,” said Schoenrock. “That’s honestly what we’re trying to do. We recognize there are some diametrically opposed views here; that is certain, and we appreciate that. We want to review this so that we can meet the needs of all the citizens of the county.
“On behalf of the board,” Schoenrock continued, “I want to say thank you to everyone that’s taken a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of energy to try to address this. We appreciate this very much, and at the end of the day, this is what our democracy is all about is people having the opportunity to provide input to the public process.”