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Chicken farm

A "zoning action in progress" sign marks the location of a proposed poultry operation at 13350 W. Wittstruck Road that would produce broilers for the new Costco chicken processing plant in Fremont.

Lancaster County isn’t typically considered a rural area.

After all, it’s home to roughly one-sixth of Nebraska’s population and Lincoln, the state’s second-largest city. Despite this, Lancaster County, unbeknownst to many, also has more individual farms than any of the state’s other 92 counties.

Perhaps this confluence of city and country can explain why the county has been the center of friction between rural residents and expanded animal agriculture, brought to a head by the proposal for two large-scale poultry operations here to supply chickens to Costco’s new plant near Fremont.

A task force convened by the county commissioners suggested the first set of zoning regulations for future livestock operations. Initially caught off-guard – and largely without recourse – by the controversial poultry barns, Lancaster County is finally making needed progress on this front.

After meeting 11 times since March, the Confined Animal Feeding Operation Task Force narrowly approved recommendations that would:

* allow feeding operations with less than 300 animal units (equivalent to a cow or steer raised for meat) in an agricultural district and regulate ones larger than that by special permit.

* require minimum setbacks of a half-mile for enclosed operations and 1 mile for open-air feedlots – and more for larger animals.

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* mandate a “conservation buffer” of trees or plants to mitigate dust and block the view.

* increase the notice applicants need and called for plans for decommissioning or reuse of the site.

Some may consider the proposals too lax. Others may find them too stringent. Regardless, Lancaster County needs to have these rules on the books to prevent the knock-down, drag-out fight that’s engulfed the initial project near Denton – something that, at long last, is moving toward completion. Clearly defined regulations should ensure the brouhaha doesn’t rekindle.

Though the Costco-affiliated chicken barns were the first proposals of this scale in Lancaster County, they almost assuredly won’t be the last in a county this size.

Already, the tension from just two projects this week has resulted in lines drawn in the sand. A group of citizen, environmental and agriculture groups announced plans to pursue a statewide moratorium on large livestock operations to update zoning laws, while farm industry leaders replied by point out that Nebraskans have lived alongside animal agriculture for generations.

Both groups have a point here. Opponents cited many of the proposals for Lancaster County – which, admittedly, had next to nothing in the way of regulations for the poultry barn – in their Change.org petition while farm groups correctly noted the importance of animal agriculture to the state economy.

Balance exists between these competing needs, but individual counties need to determine it for themselves – just as Lancaster County is doing now.

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