A proposed large poultry operation in southwestern Lancaster County will have to wait two more weeks to see if it can move forward.
After a more than five-hour public hearing Wednesday, a divided Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission voted 4-3 in favor of approving a special permit to allow the 190,000-chicken operation. But five votes are required for approval or denial, so the nine-member commission will have to vote on the issue again at its Aug. 1 meeting.
Randy Essink, a Cortland businessman, wants to raise 190,000 broiler chickens for Costco on 20 acres of a 75-acre parcel at 13350 W. Wittstruck Road, which is about a half-mile from the Saline County border.
Essink, who purchased the property in the past few weeks, said he plans to live on the site with his fiancee and infant son. He said he is a part-time farmer now, with a full-time job that requires him to travel a lot. The poultry operation will allow him to quit his job and be at home with his family, he said.
Essink said that if he thought the four proposed chicken barns were going to be a health risk or a nuisance, he wouldn’t be asking for a special permit.
“We are confident that we are going to be fine,” he said.
Neighbors in the area are equally confident that the proposed operation will make their life miserable, however.
The Planning Department received more than 100 emails in opposition to the proposed operation, many citing concerns over health risks, the condition of the roads in the area and a potential decrease in property values.
About three dozen people testified against the proposal Wednesday, and several said the proposed operation was not an agricultural operation but a factory.
Marianne Tesar, whose husband’s parents used to own the land where the facility is proposed, said her in-laws would be heartbroken if they knew the farm they built was being turned into an industrial-scale operation.
“This is a factory chicken operation,” she said.
Walt Schafer, chief operating officer of Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company hired by Costco to run its poultry operations, said things have changed in the poultry industry.
“It’s not what you think it is. This is a science-based business,” he said.
Schafer said the barns on Essink’s property will use “cutting-edge technology” that is completely controlled by computers and includes ventilation fans and probes that detect ammonia levels in real time.
John Ingram, who lives less than a mile from the site, said the operation is wrong for the area, and he and his neighbors don’t want to be the test case for unproven technology.
“We don’t want to be the guinea pigs on an operation like this,” he said.
Several neighbors who testified encouraged the Planning Commission and other county officials to take a step back and consider instituting regulations to deal with large agricultural operations such as Essink's proposed poultry operation.
Commissioner Sandra Washington, who voted against the proposal, said she thinks a step back to examine the issue is warranted.
“I’m sorry we don’t have standards in place,” she said.
But other commissioners noted they are not elected, and it is not their job to make policy.
Commissioner Deane Finnegan said the Planning Commission’s job is to determine the appropriateness of land use, “and this is the right use for the land.”
Costco is seeking about 125 producers to raise chickens for its processing plant that is under construction near Fremont. This is the first such operation that has been proposed in Lancaster County.
Officials with Lincoln Premium Poultry noted that the county has few regulations for agricultural operations, so they used their own internal standards to judge the appropriateness of the site. That included making sure it was at least a quarter-mile from the closest home. The company also required Essink to apply for a permit from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, even though the department itself did not require it.
Joining Finnegan in voting to approve the proposed operation were commissioners Tom Beckius, Tracy Corr and Cristy Joy. Joining Washington in opposing it were Tracy Edgerton and Chris Hove.
Technically, the Planning Commission’s vote in two weeks would be the final say on the proposal, but it’s likely the losing side will appeal it to the Lancaster County Board, which would then make the final decision.