WAHOO – After nearly three hours of discussion, the Saunders County Planning and Zoning Commission gave their recommendation to approve a conditional permit for a poultry feeding operation near Morse Bluff on Monday night.
Close to 150 people packed the supervisors’ room and spilled out into the hallway of the courthouse for a public hearing on Bruce and Amy Williams’ application to build a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO).
It was the second time a large group showed up to discuss the subject. On Aug. 5, a standing-room-only crowd also was at the planning commission meeting for a marathon meeting that lasted until midnight. The application was tabled by the planning commission so more information could be obtained.
Monday night, the commissioners voted in favor of the application, but included several conditions. Williams must plant a tree line around the property to help control odor, install detention ponds to contain runoff, provide hookups for fire hoses and submit to an annual review. Williams agreed to all of the conditions as the commissioners discussed them.
Commissioner Greg Rezac made the motion to approve, which was seconded by John Starns. Both commissioners voted yes, along with John Trutna and Eric Nelson. Pat McEvoy and Norm Nelson voted no.
The matter will come before the Saunders County Board of Supervisors for approval on Sept. 24. The meeting starts at 9 a.m.
Before the meeting started, Acting Chairperson Norm Nelson told the audience that they only wanted to hear new information on the application rather than rehash previous material. He also laid out the timeline for proponents and opponents, and gave the general public a three-minute limit at the microphone.
The public hearing started with Williams providing some background on the project.
Williams said he and his wife spent about 18 months deciding to build the poultry operation, which they hope is not only a monetary investment, but also an investment in his family’s future. His children have plans to continue the poultry farm, he added.
“We have one chance of putting up the number of barns we need for the next 35 years,” he said. “That’s why we came up with the plan for our family.”
The $6.6 million project would build 12 broiler houses on 120 acres located three-eighths of a mile from the Williams’ home. It would supply chickens to the Lincoln Premium Poultry processing plant in Fremont, which opened this month. The plant supplies broiler chickens to Costco Wholesale Corporation.
Williams acknowledged that they brought in an outside investor, Jody Murphey of North Carolina, but said they will own the operation in 15 years.
“For us, that’s just like a loan,” Williams added.
The operation will be run by an Amish family that will move into a house Williams plans to build on the site, with help from Williams and his wife.
“One of us will be their daily to support the family,” he said.
Concerns about odor from manure and deceased birds were brought up. Jessica Kolterman, Lincoln Premium Poultry external affairs/spokesperson, said the manure stays inside the buildings. It is piled in windrows and processed to use as fertilizer on Williams’ crops.
“They never fully empty the barns,” she said.
Andy Schulting is providing expertise for the Williams’ operation about composting the carcasses. He said the deceased chickens are taken to a separate shed where they are covered in wood shavings. The material is heated and produces very little odor when processed for fertilizer.
“It works very well as long as it’s managed well,” he said.
Kolterman said service technicians will be on the premises weekly to monitor temperature and other aspects of the composting process.
Livestock producers and farmers from Prague, Weston, Clarkson, Dakota County and Fort Calhoun, along with representatives from farm groups and state departments spoke in favor of the project, seeing it as a way to preserve the family farm.
“It allows one of our farm families to reach their goals,” said Steve Martin with the Alliance for Future Agriculture in Nebraska.
Local attorney Maureen Freeman-Caddy told the commissioners that a local opposition group has been formed. Community Advocates for Responsible Agriculture includes people who have lived in rural Saunders County for years, not just newcomers, she said.
“Members of this group are not people who moved into this community recently,” she said. “These are people who have been here for generations.”
Freeman-Caddy cautioned commissioners that the technology being proposed for this poultry operation is new and has yet to be fully tested.
“This new process is basically speculative, untested,” she said.
A dozen people followed Freeman-Caddy to voice their concerns over possible issues like odor, air quality, ground water contamination, health problems, reduced property values and increased traffic.
“I urge you to take time to weigh this carefully,” said Debra Denny, who lives near in the area of the proposed project. “We care about the economy. We care about the land and the water. We care about agriculture.”
In response to the opponents’ concerns, Amy Williams said they did a lot of research before deciding to expand their family farm operation, including whether water and air quality issues would affect their children.
“Do you not think that we considered that, and did due diligence with this?” she asked.
Several planning commission members said they had issues with the extent of the proposed operation, including Norm Nelson and Pat McEvoy. Both asked Williams he’d consider building fewer barns.
“I’m not against them, I’m against the size,” said McEvoy.
Norm Nelson said he did not think the Williams’ location was the best spot for a poultry operation.
“It seems excessive for that type of an area,” he said.
Williams said they did not want to reduce the number of barns because this is their only chance to start a poultry operation. Lincoln Premium Poultry will reach their maximum number of producers in the area very soon, he explained.
“Probably with doing less, we can never get to where we need to be,” Williams said.
However, Williams was willing to agree to the conditions.
“I want to make this work and we’re willing to do that,” he said.
Two of the commissioners said they received several letters from constituents who were opposed to the poultry barn. Rezac said the letters he read contained a lot of misinformation.
“You can make the figures fit what you want to show your point of view,” he said.
Rezac added that the Williams’ met all the county’s the zoning regulations.
“It’s kind of hard if somebody is falling all of the rules to say you can’t do it,” he said.