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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.

The approval of a controversial large-scale chicken feeding operation proposed for southwestern Lancaster County not only highlighted but benefited from a hole in county zoning regulations.

Neighbors brought valid concerns, but the county was unable to address them. Many commissioners said they had no basis to deny the special permit requested for the facility, which can house up to 190,000 chickens at a time to supply a Costco plant under construction in Fremont, because it violated nothing in the zoning regulations.

Now, the board voted unanimously to request the Lincoln-Lancaster County Planning Department to re-examine zoning code and create a committee to draft potential new rules. At the same time, commissioners appear likely to institute a moratorium until those are in place.

That’s a smart decision – and especially so after the stink raised by opponents of the poultry operation.

Residents of rural portions of the county deserve certainty as to what can and can’t be built near their properties. And a lack of pertinent zoning rules shouldn’t be the only defense offered by county commissioners – regulations need to be put in place to make it abundantly clear the conditions that need to be met before a commercial feeding operation can be built.

The moratorium being discussed is important because it will give stakeholders time to craft smart regulations that will no doubt be tested in the coming years. Lancaster County needs to ensure it won’t be blindsided again – it’s a matter of when, not if, a feedlot will be proposed within its boundaries.

Nebraskans know animal agriculture. Our nickname of “The Beef State” didn’t just drop out of thin air.

Because of that, Nebraskans understand the side effects of the business of producing meat and feeding both this country and the world. Even as technological advances and increased environmental consciousness have ushered in progress, the scent of an open-air feedlot remains unmistakable.

If the County Board’s recommendations are accepted, the group must be a diverse cross-section of people directly affected by this topic. Commissioners called for the inclusion of feedlot operators, rural residents and government officials – all of whom have an interest in finding common ground.

Also, studying the regulations that exist in other municipalities, as the County Board suggested, in hopes of heading off some otherwise-unforeseen scenario is a good idea. Lancaster County cannot conceivably be prepared for every situation, but it can assuredly be more ready than it was for the poultry barns.

While a possible lawsuit may yet upend the proposed chicken operation near the Saline County line, the only thing Lancaster County can do now is move forward. These first two steps – one already done, the other under discussion – after its approval are appropriate actions to ready for the future.

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