The fight over a Costco-related poultry farm last year laid bare the conflict between agriculture and rural acreages in Lancaster County.
Randy Essink's proposal to build four barns housing up to 190,000 chickens on 75 acres in southwest Lancaster County also exposed the fact that the county's zoning laws are woefully inadequate when it comes to dealing with large livestock operations.
Current law allows livestock operations of any size by special permit in areas zoned for agricultural uses with only one condition: an opinion from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality on whether the operation needs pollution controls.
After months of contentious hearings before both the Lincoln-Lancaster Planning Commission and the County Board, commissioners voted 3-2 in September to approve Essink's operation. But they also directed the Planning Department to review the zoning code for commercial feedlots.
That led to the appointment of a group of 10 people that has met half a dozen times since March.
The Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation Working Group has spent those six meetings gathering information, said Steve Henrichsen, development review manager for the Planning Department.
That has included hearing from representatives from the Nebraska departments of Agriculture and Environmental Quality, the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and others, as well as studying regulations in other counties.
The result is a draft set of possible changes that will be presented to the public for comment for the first time Thursday during a meeting scheduled for 5:30-7 p.m. at Scott Middle School, 2200 Pine Lake Road.
"I'm sure we'll get a lot of comments on both sides of the issue," Henrichsen said.
The proposed changes are fairly significant. They would, for the first time, define small and large animal feeding operations. They also make distinctions between enclosed and open operations. And while larger operations would still be allowed by special permit in ag areas, the group has proposed setting specific conditions they would have to meet.
Those include requiring enclosed operations to be at least a quarter-mile from the nearest occupied home and open operations to be at least a half-mile away.
Jessica Kolterman, director of corporate and external affairs for Lincoln Premium Poultry, the Fremont-based company that is responsible for recruiting area farmers to set up poultry operations to supply the Costco processing plant in that city, said some counties they have worked in have no zoning laws at all.
But among those that do, "the Lancaster County rules and regulations probably provide a much lesser amount of guidance specifically related to livestock than other counties."
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John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and one of the members of the working group, said there is a "definite need" to update the zoning criteria for confined animal feeding operations" in Lancaster County.
"The one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work," Hansen said.
The working group, he said, has good representation from various constituencies, and the recommendations mostly come from compromises.
"It's difficult to come up with a policy that's going to make everyone happy all the time," Hansen said.
With that in mind, he said the goal of the group was to come up with a "rational" public policy that most people can accept.
Hansen said he believes the draft recommendations do that.
Henrichsen stressed that the recommendations are just that -- a draft -- at this point. The working group will have more meetings after Thursday's public comment session, and is expected to produce a final set of recommendations for the Planning Department later this summer.
He said there will likely be a Planning Commission hearing on proposed zoning changes in October or November, with a County Board hearing to follow.
The working group ran into a bit of a hiccup with the state's public meetings law.
Henrichsen said that most Planning Department working groups are put together by the department, meaning they are not subject to state open meeting laws, including taking minutes.
Because of that, the department has not been keeping minutes at the working group meetings, even though it has published agendas and made the meetings open to the public. However, since the group technically was appointed at the County Board's direction, it should have been taking minutes, Henrichsen said.
The working group has not taken any formal action, he said, so there is no need to redo any of the meetings held so far.