An about-face over road improvements has led to the postponement of a hearing for a controversial commercial chicken farm proposed in northern Lancaster County, a project that planning officials recently recommended for approval.
Sunset Poultry's application for a feedlot special permit was going to be taken up by the City-County Planning Commission on Wednesday afternoon, a hearing likely to feature heavy opposition.
Opposition letters sent to the commission outnumbered letters in support of the chicken operation nearly 8-1 as of Tuesday.
Located between Valparaiso, Ceresco and Raymond, the eight-barn operation would raise 380,000 broiler chickens to be processed in Fremont at Lincoln Premium Poultry for Costco.
But the commission announced Tuesday that Sunset Poultry officials had asked to postpone the hearing on their application until Sept. 4.
Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry, which is building the barns for Sunset Poultry, said in an email to planning officials that they needed the deferment and will continue working with the Lancaster County Engineer's Office and Saunders County Roads Department "to determine needs related to the roads."
At issue is improvement of West Ashland Road, the minimum-maintenance dirt road just north of the operation that planning officials say needs to be upgraded to handle the truck traffic carrying chickens to Fremont, according to planning documents.
Under an agreement between Lancaster County and Saunders County, Rock Creek township is responsible for that stretch of Ashland Road, according to the documents.
But a Rock Creek township official recently told Wayne Greve, the owner of the property where the barns will be built, that the township was reversing its position after initially sending a letter of intent to fix and maintain the road.
"We feel that we were misinformed and not given all the facts," township official Micki Novak wrote in a letter sent to developers July 29. "The business will benefit Lancaster County, not Saunders County as we believed."
Novak invited Greve to a township meeting later this month.
The next day, Saunders County Highway Superintendent Steve Mika said his department would not fund any road construction there and reiterated that the road is the township's responsibility.
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Sunset Poultry projects an average of 20 trucks a week would service its operation with as many as 62 trucks expected in weeks when the largest number of chickens are taken to Fremont for processing.
In a July 30 report recommending the project's conditional approval, Planner Tom Cajka noted that although the expected traffic increase there is relatively minor, Sunset Poultry will be required to improve Ashland Road.
In his report, Cajka said the proposal fits the agricultural zoning for that area, along with the county's long-range goals of encouraging local food production.
The handful of houses nearby wouldn't likely be affected, and Lower Platte South Natural Resources District testing concluded the vulnerability of groundwater to contamination in that area was fairly low, Cajka said.
But Sunset Poultry would need permits from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to ensure the proper handling of chicken waste, he said.
Cajka did note that while Sunset Poultry informed its neighbors about the planned chicken operation, it didn't hold any larger public meetings to get the word out before filing its application with the commission July 9.
"This, unfortunately, led to great concern about the application due to the limited information," Cajka said, noting that wasn't a reason for denial, however.
"The proposal must be judged on the facts of the application."
Also not at play in this case is whatever recommendations come from a task force developing regulations on feedlots in Lancaster County, he said. That task force is set to meet later this week.
The planning commission will still accept testimony on the application at Wednesday's meeting, but no action will be taken until the hearing Sept. 4.
The nine planning commissioners will make a recommendation to the Lancaster County Board, which will make the ultimate decision on the fate of the proposal.