Planning Commission votes down proposed egg operations here in Switzerland County

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A large crowd showed up at the Switzerland County TEC Center last Wednesday night to see whether or not the Switzerland County Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals would grant a special exception in an Ag Zone that would allow two egg laying operations – each having 20,000 chickens – to locate here.

Two county residents, Christian Beachy and Marlin Miller, had petitioned to build the operations under the guidance of Egg Innovations, a company headquartered in Warsaw, Indiana, that supplies egg laying chickens to farmers and then processes the eggs for the retail market.

Beachy planned to located his operation on a tract of land on Truitt Road near State Road 250 just east of East Enterprise. Miller planned to located his operation on Bear Branch Road near Goodner Road on land that he was purchasing from Rolland and Marilyn Goodner.

“All the paperwork has been filed, Wil has turned in all the green cards this afternoon,” Building Commissioner Mark Archer told the planning commission. “It is in compliance with our current zoning ordinance.”

The process at the meeting involved both sides giving presentations to the Planning Commission, which would then consider whether or not it would make a recommendation to the Board of Zoning Appeals on approving the exception. If the Planning Commission did recommend it, ultimately it would be up the zoning board to officially approve or reject the applications.

Before the presentations began, it was decided that the zoning board would come up and also listen to and participate in the first meeting, so that people wanting to speak on the issue wouldn’t have to speak twice.

IN SUPPORT

At Wednesday’s meeting, the applicants were represented by Madison attorney Wil Goering.

“As you probably know, Indiana is a ‘right to farm’ state, and so by law in it farmers have the right to farm particularly if it’s agricultural ground,” Goering said. “This area where we are is zoned agricultural. In Indiana it’s recognized that agricultural uses sometimes produce sounds and smells. Those are things that people who want to live near there, basically are expected to recognize and adjust to.”

Goering this addressed why the meeting was happening in the first place.

“It’s a special exception use not because of the size of the operation,” he said. “The proposal is barns with 20,000 chickens. There’s been a false rumor that’s been persistent in the community about a ‘10,000 chicken rule’. There is no ‘10,000 chicken rule’, that’s something that somebody out here made up. Our ordinance defines a confined feeding operation involving chickens is 30,000 chickens, that’s what a confined feeding operation is. That’s what’s regulated by IDEM – 30,000 chickens – and that’s what our ordinance refers to. This is not a confined feeding operation by any means. This is a family farm, so what we’re talking about is, it’s not the number of chickens, it is because it is chickens producing eggs, a secondary product.”

Goering said that the proposed operations were much like a dairy operation producing milk. Goering said that because the operations would be producing a secondary product, eggs, that is the only reason that the operations had to come before the planning commission and the zoning board.

Goering said that the operations being proposed were not ‘free range’ chickens, but instead were ‘pastured’ chickens, meaning that the doors of the barns are open everyday and that the chickens are free to go out into the pasture and roam around throughout the day. By statute, a pastured farm must have at least 108 square feet per chicken, not including the barns and other things such as the roads and drives leading in and out of the farm.

“They’re not confined on the inside. They’re not stacked up,” Goering said. “They are completely free. They have places to roost, and by roosting there’s then places where the eggs go, and also it collects the manure. The manure goes into bunkers that are underneath the barn; and there’s means used to dry that manure, so there’s not odors produced, and it remains dry and it is then, every 14 to 18 months, depending on when they change the chickens, that manure would be cleaned out and that entire area would be sanitized and then they would bring in new chickens.”

Goering said that the applicants would be getting information from an engineer about water run off, but that had not been done prior to Wednesday’s meeting; but he noted that the chickens would not have access to ground water.

He also said that traffic would not be an issue, as there would be one semi truck coming to the property once a week to get the eggs and take them to the processing plant in Warsaw, Indiana. A truck bringing feed would also be at each site approximately once a week.

Louis Lengacher spoke to the boards about his experiences with the egg operations, including his partnership with Egg Innovations that he is in with a farm near Owenton, Kentucky.

“It’s obvious there’s a lot of tension here tonight,” Lengacher said. “But it makes me happy when I look around and see that’s there’s bodies in place that allow things to mature throughout the United States in a way that brings justice to everybody. I want to thank all of you for your time, because I know you guys have put a lot of time into this that’s not accounted for.”

Lengacher said that agriculture needs to continue and it needs to continue to grow.

“You guys have the evidence, I don’t think there’s a need to make many more words about it on my behalf,” he said.

Christian Beachy also spoke to the crowd. He presented his vision for what his plans are.

“Our dream has been for years to have a family operation,” he said. “I want to be a stay at home dad, raise my children on the farm in a Godly way and a peaceful way, as much as possible.”

Beachy said that he has experience with chickens working with his father on their farm in Wisconsin; and he hoped to continue those experiences and memories with his children.

“Here’s a door that’s kind of opened for us, and we’re looking for God’s will,” Beachy said. “If it don’t go through, then it must be God’s will. It’s not my intent to destroy property value in any way. I’d rather increase it, if possible.”

Neal Rye, Vice President of Operations for Egg Innovations then spoke to the boards and the audience.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” Rye said. “Chris and Marlin are very much what we recruit to have for farmers. They come in with passion. They come in with the energy and they want to do it right. It’s my job, and my team’s, to make sure they are coached and trained to do a good job. These barns, with the ammonia reduction, there is no mold, because we have heaters in the barns. We build first class barns. This guy’s getting ready to spend $750,000 to build a barn for 20,000 chickens. But he can recoup his money; I can teach him; and you guys won’t even know the barn’s there.”

He also said that the operations will also be good in the community.

“They’ll be good neighbors. Egg Innovations is good neighbors,” Rye said. “We’re good neighbors with everybody. We do a first class job, there’s nobody better in the country right now at doing what we do than us.”

Miller then spoke in favor of the exception for his farm.

“We’ve been down there seeing those buildings in Owenton, and I was impressed,” Miller said. “It really got my blood going to have this chicken barn.”

Miller said that the Goodners are selling him the land at below market value because they want to see the operation go in, and they want to see the farm continue as a family farm.

“They really want to see this building go in, they really want to see a family farm,” Miller said of the Goodners. “That’s why I’m excited tonight. When I got married about 4 ½-years ago, I had a vision to be at home. I was working. My dad was a farmer, and when I was 18 I started working out….I have been looking for 4 ½ years now for something that I can do at home, where I can be with my family; be a Godly dad and supporter; but I’ve got to have something where I can support my family, I can’t just have a hobby farm, I’ve got to have something where I can support my children.”

Marilyn Goodner told the board about the desire of her and her husband to see the land continue as a family farm.

“It (the farm) has been in our Goodner family for four generations, for way over 100 years,” she said. “My husband has lived on this land his whole life. His father before him; his grandfather; and his great grandfather. This farming heritage is not only for the Goodner family; for my family has been here since 1830….This is my dream, to keep our farm a family farm. My husband and I have no children to pass it to; however, we have come to love the young family that I believe will fulfill our dream of keeping this a productive, family farm.”

IN OPPOSITION

Some of the concerned landowners were represented at the meeting by attorney Ray Basile.

“I don’t represent all the people, but I’m fairly confident that the concerns that group that I’ve met with are going to be echoed here by some of the other people. They are some of the same concerns that you all asked about and expressed a concern about tonight,” Basile said. “My purpose is not to go into the substance of those concerns, we’ve got people who are the real stakeholders here that live in the area, that live immediately adjacent to these properties. They are going to give a much better explanation of their concerns.”

Basile said that it was his purpose at Wednesday’s meeting to “set the table” before concerned landowners spoke.

“First, you heard at the very beginning of the presentation about why we’re here, and that we’re really only here because they’re selling eggs, otherwise we wouldn’t even have to be here,” Basile said. “The reality is, we’re here; and because we’re here, it doesn’t matter why. All that matters is: can they satisfy what the ordinance requires to your satisfaction to recommend it and to ultimately the zoning board’s satisfaction to approve it. I think based on what you’re going to hear tonight, that’s not the case. You heard very little substance here today. You heard from some people that seem genuinely interested in developing farms, that seem to have concerns about their family and concerns about wanting to be with their children – all noble things, and I don’t think there’s anybody here in that crowd that holds anything against them for wanting those things.”

In order to approve the request and send that recommendation on to the Board of Zoning Appeals, the Planning Commission needed to approve six different standards:

– Is the request compatible with the Switzerland County Comprehensive Plan?

– Is it injurious to the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the community?

– Whether the use or value of the area adjacent to the property will be effected in any substantially adverse manner?

– Whether the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district will be impeded.

– Whether adequate utilities, access roads, drainage, and other necessary facilities and/or will be provided.

– Whether adequate measures have been or will be taken to provide ingress or egress so designed as to minimize traffic congestion in the public streets.

At the meeting, opponents of the plan spoke specifically about the impacts of several of those six standards:

Arnold Walker told the board that he and his wife own property on Bear Branch Road that is directly adjacent to the Goodner Farm.

“I will say that I’m not a farmer, but I will also say that I’m not opposed to farming,” Walker said. “I have absolutely nothing against farmers, but this is not a normal farming operation that we’re talking about. If it were, we wouldn’t even be here talking about a special exception…..Myself and a lot of people who are in opposition, if that’s what you want to say – there’s been a lot of things said about property values and odors and things like that, but to be honest with you, there’s a lot of information out there that directly goes against everything that the gentleman from Egg Innovations has said, as far as odors and flies and all those sorts of things. Those are legitimate concerns, as far as we’re concerned.”

Walker said that he and his wife purchased the property with the intent of building a home and moving their family there, but he stated that if the plan was approved and the egg operation was allowed to be put on the property, the family won’t be building a house there.

“It’s definitely injurious to us,” Walker said.

Next was Debbie Jones, who lives on Goodner Road with her husband, Thomas.

“Our home is approximately 2,000 feet from the proposed barn at that site,” Jones said. “One of the largest areas of concern for us is how it will impact not only health, but the enjoyment of our property….In doing some research, we know that one of the things that chickens can carry are diseases, and those diseases can affect all of us. They can be things that we don’t think of everyday, from avian flu to diphtheria to Heaven knows what – but the most likely thing that we feel as local residents that we are going to be impacted by is going to be the affects from the dander from the chickens, the dust, that sort of thing, that can be a contributing factor to wheezing, respiratory illnesses.”

She pointed out that the Truitt Road site is close to Switzerland County Elementary School, and she said that it was her understanding that there are approximately 70 children at that school who suffer from asthma.

Tod Lane, who lives near the Truitt Road site, opened his remarks by reading letters from two of his neighbors who couldn’t be at the meeting because of them being elderly and on oxygen.

“They’ve asked for a chance to prove that they’d be great for our community, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m sure that you all are sincere, I know you all love chickens. I’m a farmer, too, I’ve got a few horses, and if my granddaughter, who lives with me, wasn’t allergic to chickens, I’d have one. You all are planning on putting 20,000 within about 140 feet of my bedroom window, pending on the set back. So that’s going to affect her quality of life. She’s not going to be able to go outside….She used to live near chickens, (and had to take) three shots two times a week. She moved further out in the country with me, no shots.”

Next was Tonya Alford Dreyer, who spoke about land values, as she lives near the Truitt Road location.

“When I moved to the place where I moved to, I bought 2.106 acres,” she said. “I have went and built my family home for my daughter and I….When I built this, and I built this up, I built this on the understanding that this was an area that was subdivided off as more of restricted places.”

Dreyer said that there were restrictions on landowners deeds in that area limiting such things as the number of dogs that a landowner can have; turning the area into a residential neighborhood.

“My house appraised out at $180,000,” she said. “Tell me, who – any of you? – who would spend $180,000 when you came to look at my property, say you weren’t from around here and you wanted to relocate….You saw my home on the realtor’s website. You came to my house, you got out of your car. You saw this big building across the road with a bunch of chickens running around. You’re going to look at your realtor and say, ‘well, what’s that?’ And your realtor is going to say ‘that’s a commercial chicken farm, they have 20,000 chickens’. What are you going to do? If the smell didn’t get to you first.”

Denny Bowling, who lives directly across Bear Branch Road from the Goodner property, spoke about the potential for runoff into watersheds and other areas.

“One of the questions that you asked, and we do not need to wait on any survey or anything. There is a map from Soil and Water that clearly shows that the runoff goes directly to the Laughery Valley Watershed,” Bowling said. “That shows you on your map….the veins where the Laughery Valley Watershed is.”

He also pointed out in terms of the soil on the Goodner Farm has a very low saturation point.

“On that 10-percent of 20,000 chickens that’s out there (it had been earlier stated that approximately 10-percent of the manure is outside of the barn), it may not affect the ground this year. It may not affect the ground in two years; but at some point it will be saturated to where it’s going to be barren and will run off. That’s a fact.”

Raquel Hankins, who lives less than a mile from the Goodner Road site, spoke to the board about composting. It had been earlier noted that chickens who die in the operation are disposed of by composting them in sawdust.

“It was briefly mentioned here, and Mr. Goering, he stated that there was very little deaths related,” Hankins said. “There’s many, many studies out there that state otherwise. Basically the mortality rate is 10-percent a year, which equates to about 2,000 dead hens per site per year; and that’s about 8,000 pounds of dead birds, roughly.”

Bruce Tressler, who lives on State Road 250 near the proposed Truitt Road site, told the board that he had been investigating possible ingress and egress of the site.

“Mark Brunner has been at the site, and he’s the INDOT permitting official,” Tressler said. “He said that as of today no permits have been applied for. He also made the comment that, where this is located on State Road 250, on a curve, that they are not going to use Truitt Road for ingress and egress. Is that correct?”

The applicants stated that they didn’t know yet.

“You don’t know?” Tressler continued.

Lengacher said that normally first comes the permitting before money is spent to formally planning such things on the site, so no one would find any permits yet, because the approval had not yet been given.

“I was under the impression that you still had to have a plan, drawn by an engineer, so if it is approved, that the radius-es are there,” Tressler continued.

Mark Tague, who owns property near the Truitt Road site, talked about the manure. He said that a University of Hawaii study found that one hen produces about 130 pounds of manure each year.

“We’re talking about 20,000 hens,” he said. “That’s 1,300 tons of manure. That’s 2,600,000 pounds. Now, they have to clean this anywhere from 12 to 14 to 18 months. That’s a long time, even if 10-percent of it is going outside the barn. A lot of smells. A lot of odors. A lot of insects. A lot of health concerns.”

Sandy Bowling, who lives with her husband, Steve, and their children on Bear Branch Road near the Goodner site, also voiced her concerns and opposition.

“Our son, Zach, has many health issues,” she said. “A couple are asthma, multiple pneumonias. Our sons, Eli and Zach, both enjoy playing basketball and playing outside. If the chicken farm gets approved, they won’t be able to go outside, due to the smells, flies, noise, varmints, and Zach’s asthma. I just want to say that we didn’t build our farm or our house in the country – where it’s quiet, peaceful, big beautiful view, to live next to a big noisy, smelly chicken farm with disease.”

Michael Furnish lives near the Truitt Road site with his family.

“I’ve lived in Switzerland County my whole life,” he said. “No, I’m not a farmer. My dad was a farmer. My grandfather was a farmer. The first job I had was in this county on a farm helping locals. I don’t think anybody here has a problem with farming, especially the small farmer. Our problem is the size and the numbers….What I’m going to do is to ask you as intelligent, grown, human beings, to use common sense.”

*

After a few more public comments in opposition, and giving the applicants the opportunity to address some of the concerns, the Planning Commission then went through the six standards individually; and found that they believed that public health could be compromised and that land values could be negatively impacted.

They then voted to not recommend the exception to the Board of Zoning Appeals.

The Board of Zoning Appeals then opened its meeting, and with no business, attorney Wil Goering then again addressed the audience.

“On behalf of the petitioners, we are, at this point, withdrawing the two requests for special exception uses, and we thank you for your attendance this evening,” he said.

According to Building Inspector Archer, the petitioners can re-apply after 30 days if they so desire; and if they do and it is voted down again, they would have to wait one year before applying a third time. There has been no indication that the petitioners will re-apply.

– Pat Lanman