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Like so many others, I’ve been reading with great interest about the monster chicken coops that may come home to roost on the north side of Lancaster County. I’ve got a farm nearby, and others have houses. There’s even a high school that’ll be affected.

But no matter where you live, you have more skin in the game than you realize.

The issue; a proposed chicken rearing facility consisting of eight 600-foot-long buildings, each housing up to 47,500 birds. The broiler hybrids inside will grow fast, meaning more than 2 million birds may pass through there annually, all on an 80-acre parcel of sloping land that’s just a mile from Raymond Central High School.

With concerns over the amount of soil, air and water pollution that could come from the farm, many parents and students are now up in arms, and rightly so. A positive pollution opinion from the state is all that’s needed to allow the facility to be built, with few other restrictions on what the farm can do.

Then there’s all the truck traffic associated with a farm this size, with semis hauling feed, chicken poop, live birds, dead birds, the works. If the pollution issues don’t scare parents, this surely does.

I’d like to think the planners just didn’t see the school sitting there. Now that plenty of irate residents have pointed that out, maybe authorities will suggest moving the chickens into an area less densely populated and less risky.

But forget the school for a moment, and let’s consider the even bigger picture:

What kind of place do we all want to live in?

Recently, four barns were approved on the west side of the county near Denton. Each will also hold 47,500 chickens, which will be shipped out and replaced every six to eight weeks. Now comes this mega coop that’s planned for the north. Are more coming to encircle Lincoln? And why the big push to surround one of the largest population centers in the state?

Some county planners have been short-sighted to think that any business is better than no business, but don’t we still dream of having a Silicon Prairie here, full of high-tech research labs and businesses that pay great and drive the clean economy of the future? Will that happen once the word gets out that our county welcomes enormous, confined animal feeding operations with open arms?

And what of those who crave an emerald necklace of parks all the way around Lincoln, full of trails to hike, ride bikes and savor new prairie corridors? The popularity of all these certainly seems like we care. But these green spaces and industrial animal confinement are obviously not a good fit.

To date, our county commissioners have said they fully recognized the current regulations for commercial animal feeding operations are inadequate, whether it’s for poultry, swine or cattle. Truth is, there are very few rules in place now to handle this kind of thing, and they’ve been caught flat-footed by all this. That’s not much of an excuse when votes can be delayed until proper safeguards are put in place to ensure that nobody gets sick or run over.

Commissioners, why not wait for the amendments you asked for before you vote again?

If that’s not enough for you, the current Lancaster County zoning regulations for special permits say the planning commission must consider what is “deemed appropriate to maintain the health, safety and general welfare of the surrounding properties.” That’s more than enough to buy the time everyone needs to sort this out.

And let’s fix the planning commission’s pro-chicken working group while we’re at it; currently there are no academics, scientists, environmentalists or even neighbors on that panel, but there should be.

In the end, this is really is about our sense of place, our community. The public opposition is overwhelming. Will the county commissioners go with the will of the majority or fall to the money and pressures behind Big Chicken?

In the end, it takes an educated, active populace to generate good laws and see to it they’re enforced. This means it’s everyone’s right, and obligation, to speak up when big things are at stake. One way or another, we end up with the government, and the decisions, we deserve.

Perhaps that’s why these words are carved onto our Nebraska State Capitol, on the north side no less:

“The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen.”

These words apply to counties, too.

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Joel Sartore is a photographer and fellow of the National Geographic Society and founder of The Photo Ark. He lives in Lincoln and owns farm ground in northern Lancaster County.

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