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County commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a proposed chicken farming operation in southwest Lancaster County that will produce 190,000 chickens at a time for a Costco processing plant.

However, within a few minutes of the meeting ending, opponents were already considering filing a lawsuit to halt the operation near the Saline County line.

The Lancaster Hills Alliance will be meeting to make that decision, said Ken Winston, who has served as legal counsel for the group during the approval process.

For its part, the Lancaster County Board said Tuesday that it will look at strengthening the county’s zoning regulations covering commercial feeding operations. 

The county has few regulations, a fact noted by opponents who urged the board to create the rules before allowing the poultry operation to move ahead.

However, chicken farm operator Randy Essink will be allowed to proceed by following standards set by his contracting company. The standards include building barns 400 feet from the road and a quarter-mile from the closest homes. He will also be applying for a construction and operating permit from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, which will regulate his operation even though the permit is not required.

Essink’s chicken farm will be a supplier for the Costco poultry processing plant under construction in Fremont.

He will contract with Lincoln Premium Poultry, a Georgia-based company that is managing the Costco plant and hopes to have contracts with as many as 125 producers. 

Essink's operation will be built on 75 acres at 13350 W. Wittstruck Road, about a half-mile from the county line near Crete, and will include four barns that could house up to 190,000 chickens.

Commissioners Roma Amundson, Todd Wiltgen and Jennifer Brinkman said the proposed chicken operation met all state and local regulations.

The county had no information that would provide a legal basis to deny the permit, said Brinkman.

Brinkman said she's encouraged by the applicant deciding to seek DEQ permitting, though it isn’t required.

"These kinds of projects are vetted well and I have faith in the agencies doing the vetting," she said. “I think we need to support development innovation."

In addition, the local health department will react to complaints if the conditions aren’t met by the operator, Brinkman said.

Amundson said she had heard no complaints about other chicken operations in the county near Waverly and Firth.

Deb Schorr, who voted against the special permit, said state zoning law was set up to promote health and safety of people living in a county, and the proposal didn’t live up to those ideals.

Commissioner Bill Avery also voted no.

The vote came after five hours of testimony Tuesday, when opponents raised concerns about potential air and water pollution, increased truck traffic on the gravel road, increased risk of disease carried by insects and a fear that property values will drop.

There are more than 70 homes within 1½ miles of the proposed operation, and zoning regulations are not adequate to protect the rights and interests of neighbors, said Andrew Knight, whose family farm borders Essink's land.

Several people with health issues told commissioners they worried the dust from the chicken feces would worsen their conditions.

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Elayne Woods said she needs to keep her son Noah healthy and his immune system strong because he has a congenital heart defect. She's worried that he might be affected by the proposed operation that will be about 1½ miles from their home. 

But supporters, including representatives of Lincoln Premium Poultry, pointed to the modern technology that will be in place to keep odors at bay, and the water and air clean.

Truck traffic would average less than two trucks a day. Waste would be composted and spread on fields as fertilizer.

“Our facilities will be a showplace for the entire world,” said Jessica Kolterman, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Premium Poultry. 

The company has "done everything we can to go above and beyond" what is required, she said. 

The Lincoln-Lancaster Planning Commission approved the special permit last month after nine hours of public hearings over several meetings. 

The commission also unanimously urged the county board to look at revising the county zoning code to better regulate large commercial feeding operations.

The county board will be directing the Planning Department to review the zoning code for commercial feedlots, Brinkman said.

The zoning review will include looking at other communities and other agency regulations, and will involve a working group of operators, neighbors and government agency representatives.

The county commissioners will also look at the potential of adding financial penalties to make sure developers with special permits follow the conditions that are part of that permit, Brinkman said. 

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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