Pork producers who own a processing plant in Fremont include Gov. Jim Pillen, the plant received a $25 million federal grant. (Keith Weller/USDA Agricultural Research Service)
LINCOLN — A prominent pork producer’s plan to streamline and “take the emotion out” of approvals of new livestock operations generated a lot of negative emotions Wednesday.
That hog farmer, Nebraska Gov. Jim Pillen, requested the introduction of a bill in the State Legislature to, as written, eliminate public hearings during county zoning board consideration of permits to allow large hog confinement operations, chicken farms and feedlots.
Those public hearings often get emotional, the governor said, forcing zoning board members to make decisions out of “subjective fears” instead of whether an operation meets all the county, state and federal rules.
“The goal is simple: to smooth out the process of obtaining the proper permits and do business at the county level,” Pillen told members of the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee.
Todd Tulls, who operates dairies in Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin, said that requiring only written comments on zoning requests would “take out some of the emotional neighbor bias” that can sway the members of a zoning board against a permit.
A wave of opponents, including several members of county board and county zoning commissions, testified against Legislative Bill 1375, calling it unnecessary, undemocratic and aimed at easing the addition of more confined animal feeding operations to Nebraska.
“This will restrict the opportunity of the public to voice their opinions,” said Mark Schoenrock, a Jefferson County Board member.
He and others pointed out the inscription above the main entrance to the State Capitol is “The Salvation of the State is the Watchfulness of the Citizen.” Written comments, as the bill appeared to require, could be misinterpreted or disregarded, they said.
Ken Winston, a lobbyist for the Bold Alliance, said the plain language of LB 1375 eliminates the words “hold public hearings” before a zoning board submits its recommendation to a county board. He said it was hard to see how planning commissions could hold such hearings absent that language.
Supporters of LB 1375 said that was a misunderstanding and said the bill’s intent wasn’t to eliminate a public hearing at the zoning board level but to make it optional and allow written comments instead.
The sponsor of the bill, Kearney Sen. John Lowe, said he would amend the bill to ensure that public hearings at the zoning board level are still allowed.
“I’m sorry we scared the daylights out of you,” he told opponents of the bill who came to the State Capitol.
Some critics of LB 1375 were skeptical about whether it was an honest mistake and said the measure wasn’t needed. Making public hearings optional, they maintained, would probably lead to that being the practice.
While supporters of LB 1375 said public hearings would still be required at the county board level, Korby Gilbertson, a lobbyist for Media of Nebraska, said that some counties — she named Lancaster — require public hearings only at the zoning board level. So if those went away, she said, there would be no opportunity for public input.
Winston added that public hearings are often “very educational” and can help air concerns and work out differences.
Al Juhnke of the Nebraska Pork Producers Association said LB 1375 is needed because of “needless zoning roadblocks” in some Nebraska counties.
He pointed to the recent denial of a hog confinement operation in north-central Rock County. The farmer involved, according to Juhnke, met all the county zoning regulations, but a conditional use permit for the operation was denied for “unsubstantiated, unproven” reasons, including that it would lower property values in the vicinity.
One denial in court
That denial, he said, is now under appeal in court.
Juhnke and others supporters of LB 1375 said they just wanted more clarity in zoning regulations so that if a facility met the requirements, it would be approved.
“This is an effort to make Nebraska a more business-friendly state,” Lowe said.
Opponents of the bill said local zoning boards and county boards are best able to determine whether a livestock facility is right for their area. That included Faye Smith, a Rock County Board member, who defended the denial of the permit there.
Opponents of LB 1375 also objected to language in the bill that made approval of a conditional use permit automatic if an application took more than 90 days to decide.
Misty Ahmic, a member of the Seward County Board and former member of the zoning commission there, said even a routine application can take more than 90 days.
Others said putting a “shot clock” on approvals could lead to rushed judgments, or decisions without getting adequate information.
Still other critics of the bill objected to removing “water quality” as a consideration in granting a conditional use permit. They said preserving or improving water quality is a top concern in many areas of the state.
The committee took no action on LB 1375 following the public hearing, though Lowe pledged to keep working on the bill.
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