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Chicken farm northwest Lancaster County

After a nearly six-hour hearing Thursday, the Lancaster County Board denied a special permit to build a Costco-affiliated, 380,000-chicken farm in northwest Lancaster County.

Commissioners on a 3-2 vote rejected Sunset Poultry's application despite previous approval of another large chicken farming operation in southwest Lancaster County.

Sunset Poultry's case was different, said Commissioners Christa Yoakum, Sean Flowerday and Rick Vest, who voted against the permit. Yoakum represents the district.

Building the county's largest chicken farm on a site just over a mile north of Raymond Central Junior-Senior High School raised too many risky unknowns, the three Democrats said.

Raymond Central school administrators, board members, parents and students implored commissioners to not make the school a case study for the operation's impact on water quantity and air quality.

And there were concerns semitrailer traffic to the farm might make roads dangerous for inexperienced, school-age drivers.

Sunset Poultry and Lincoln Premium Poultry officials said they would work with the county to alleviate concerns.

Previously, county planners and the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Commission had signed off on the special permit. Opponents appealed the planning commission's decision which set up Thursday's hearing and vote.

Flowerday said Sunset Poultry meets the criteria for a special permit, but he had too many concerns about the fire risk of the chicken barns and whether enough water was available in the area.

"It's our job to watch out for the safety, the well-being and the general welfare of the citizens of our county," he said.

Commission Chair Roma Amundson and Commissioner Deb Schorr, both Republicans, wanted to approve the permit with conditions.

Amundson said the board already had precedent for approving a chicken operation when it met the application requirements, and enough processes were in place to ensure the chicken barns complied with environmental regulations.

Lincoln Premium Poultry spokeswoman Jessica Kolterman said after the meeting the board's vote was disappointing. She didn't know if the applicants would go to court to challenge the decision.

"When a person who wants to grow and expand their operation — that is within the bounds of the law — is denied (the opportunity) to do that, it's disappointing for the family but it's also disappointing for agriculture," Kolterman said.

Sunset Poultry applied for a special permit to operate the poultry farm, which would have eight barns housing up to 47,500 chickens apiece. The operation would raise broiler chickens for Lincoln Premium Poultry, the Costco processing plant in Fremont.

Following hours of testimony at an October meeting, the planning commission approved the operation's special permit, 5-1.

Thirty-eight people testified Thursday against the permit and — as many told the planning commission — their opposition isn't to agriculture. 

The proposed site concerned them.

Opponents worried about odor, dust and bacteria from the chicken barns affecting nearby residences and the school.

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And they said they feared for the safety of teen drivers on the same narrow gravel roads around the school as semitrailers coming and going from the proposed chicken barns.

"The mascot at Raymond Central is the mustang," neighbor Carol Sherman said. "It is not the guinea pigs, and neither are our children."

Josh and Tonya Bussard, who would run the operation, said they just wanted to diversify their farm and use the land as allowed.

Asthmatic children at the school are already exposed to dust from corn and bean fields surrounding the school, Tonya Bussard pointed out. 

Much of the peak truck traffic would occur overnight when the birds are being brought to the barns or taken off for processing, Kolterman said.

And there's plenty of grain trucks, construction trucks and farm equipment on these roads alongside teen and adult drivers who often drive too fast or fiddle with their cellphones, Tonya Bussard said.

"Road safety is everyone’s responsibility," she said.

Kolterman noted the farm would willingly subject itself to higher regulation than required because it wants to set a new, greater standard in poultry farming.

The final vote drew applause, hugs and some tears from opponents, who branded themselves "RC Communities United."

Raymond Central Public Schools Board President Harriet Gould said she was elated by the board's vote, which she called the right decision because of the proximity of the barns to the school. 

"It's a different kettle of fish than what happened in southwest Lancaster County," Gould said, noting the school board voted unanimously twice to oppose this. 

"That's a difference-maker."

The last time the County Board heard a zoning appeal of a Costco-affiliated farm, commissioners on a 3-2 vote approved the special permit for the four-barn operation Randy Essink proposed near the Saline County line.

During that vote in September 2018, members of the board's majority said they had no legal basis to deny the permit for Essink.

Opponents challenged the ruling in court, and Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson upheld the board's approval and ruled it was sound and legal. Nelson's decision was appealed on Monday.

Schorr, who represents southwest Lancaster County, voted to deny Essink's permit last year.

But Thursday, Schorr pointed to the judge's ruling and suggested the county offer a four-barn compromise to limit the potential risks.

"If we turn this down, you know they're going to court, and they're going to get eight, and we know that," she said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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