Proposed legislation would preempt local zoning control of factory farms and raise the ire of a broad and growing coalition.
A “green light” for factory farms?
Factory farms cause increased water pollution, local land use conflicts, increased truck traffic on local roads, the devaluation of nearby properties, highly offensive odors and various other nuisances.
Nonetheless, these smelly operations continue to spring up throughout rural Wisconsin. They even have their own acronym; CAFO stands for “Confined Animal Feeding Operation.” Now you know.
A headline in the April 2 issue of the agricultural newspaper The Country Today piqued my interest. “Legislators propose new livestock expansion rules,” implies state legislators are proposing to strengthen the environmental standards applicable to factory farms in Wisconsin. This would be a great idea, because the current standards are weak and allow these farms to be set up in communities that often oppose them.
Unfortunately, the headline was misleading and what the article described is a proposal that would certainly not strengthen the state’s weak CAFO regulations. Instead, the proposal by two conservative state legislators, Senator Dale Schultz and Assembly Rep. David Ward, would weaken the law by preempting Wisconsin’s local governments from applying zoning ordinances to new and expanding CAFOs. In other words, it would strip local zoning authority over CAFOs from local governments.
“We want to give a green light to all those producers out there who want to expand,” Schultz told Country Today.
To its credit, Country Today quotes the opposing view of Marion Nate, chair of Manitowoc County’s Natural Resources Committee. Nate said she “Would hate to see the state take the decision-making ability from local government.”
Country Today also quotes an attorney who spoke for the Farm Bureau in support of the Schultz and Ward’s legislation. The article did not say that the same attorney recently lost a zoning case in Manitowoc County, where his client applied for a zoning conditional use permit for a huge, 5,000-head beef feedlot in the Town of Gibson. In that case, the evidence showed conclusively that the proposed feedlot would likely cause groundwater pollution and other social and environmental problems in the area. Also, two Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources specialists presented evidence about potential adverse environmental impacts from the project, and a local citizens group called Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment presented strong environmental and other evidence against it.
It is not surprising that conservative legislators would want to pass a bill like this at the Farm Bureau’s behest. The good news is that this proposal pits them against a potentially powerful and progressive coalition, including town and county governments, rural private property owners, lakeshore property owners, outdoor sporting groups, conservationists, environmentalists, and a broad array of small and medium scale farmers and consumers who oppose CAFOs because they are driving smaller farms out of business and are not an ecologically sustainable form of agriculture. This coalition is growing and is having success throughout the state in beating back CAFOs and other environmental hazards.
Sadly, Assembly Speaker John Gard and Governor Jim Doyle have said they favor the proposed legislation--although it hasn’t even been drafted yet. At least the governor had the sense to say he would not promise to sign it until he actually sees it! Gard simply endorsed it, sight unseen.
The Legislature recently passed the so-called Smart Growth Law to encourage local governments to develop local land use plans and to require them to make most zoning decisions consistent with their land use plans beginning in January 2010. Passing a new law to allow CAFOs to be sited without any local zoning controls now would seem the antithesis of “smart growth.” At the very least, it violates the spirit of law.
There are other legal ironies inherent in this proposal. Wisconsin has a “right-to-farm” law that is controversial and arguably unconstitutional because it allows some farming operations to, in-effect, “take” their neighbors’ private property rights without paying just compensation. (Andrew C. Hanson wrote an article addressing this in the December 2002 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer .) As it is written, the legislative purpose of the right-to-farm law reads, in part, “The legislature further asserts its belief that local units of government, through exercise of their zoning power, can best prevent such conflicts [between agricultural and other uses of land] from arising in the future, and the legislature urges local units of government to use their zoning power accordingly.” (See Wis. Stat. § 823.08(1).)
The proposed legislation to give CAFOs a green light in Wisconsin would be an about-face by the Legislature and a slap in the face to local governments and private citizens concerned about the negative social and environmental impacts of factory farms. So now is the time for family farmers, environmentalists, conservationists, local governments, outdoor sports enthusiasts, homeowners, and consumers to organize and slap down this bad proposal.
April 10, 2003
post a letter about this article »
read letters on this article (0)
Glenn Stoddard lives in McFarland and is a partner in the law firm of Garvey & Stoddard, S.C.