Local control is ultimately the issue
Buena Vista County is conceding that the Department of Natural Resources is likely to side with Rembrandt Enterprises and overturn the county's denial of the industry's plan to build a major expansion to its facility.
Both Buena Vista County and Rembrandt Enterprises have filed their cases with the DNR by the deadline this week. The DNR now has 30 days to make a decision, and no compromise is possible.
"Basically, the DNR looks at the documentation, and either will have to say Rembrandt Enterprises is right or the county is right," said Kim Johnson, environmental health director for the county. "We are assuming they are going to make their determination on behalf of Rembrandt Enterprises."
The debate will not end there.
If the DNR overturns the county decision and grants the permits for expanding the chicken-and-egg plant, the county will have 14 days to appeal to the Environmental Protection Commission - which it plans to do.
The standoff between the county and one of its major rural industries emerged recently after a crowd of neighbors attended a public hearing to say conditions around Rembrandt Enterprises are ruining their quality of life. Some of the neighbors claimed that the odor and the flies caused by the manure from the facility had made members of their families sick or forced them at times to leave their homes.
Although Rembrandt Enterprises had met the required points under a master matrix system application, which by the letter of the law applies only to the expansion plan, after hearing the neighbor's complaints, the supervisors voted surprisingly to refuse the plan anyway.
They contend that their argument is based on the spirit of the law, and argue that setbacks from the road and wells of the existing part of the plant would not meet the points requirements of the master matrix.
Rembrandt Enterprises officials say that they are working to address any problems with manure, and that the existing plant is not the issue, since it was built before the master matrix system was created.
If the appeal goes to the Environmental Protection Commission, it is likely that both county officials and Rembrandt Enterprises management will travel to make their cases.
While the county is plowing new territory with their approach of opposition, Humboldt County has had some success in somewhat similar efforts, Johnson said.
The environmental health director said she can see positives for the county no matter how the standoff comes out.
If Rembrandt Enterprises is allowed to expand to its proposes size of around six million birds, it will mean economic growth and jobs.
And if it is stopped, "we don't have the increased issues with additional manure, traffic, environmental odor and possible nuisance conditions," Johnson said.
There is also some social benefit for the neighbors to have a chance to tell their story.
"It may be good for them to have at least an opportunity to vent to someone with some control," said Johnson. An attorney has already been retained by two of the plant's neighbors in anticipation of making such a case to the EPC.
Ultimately, the issue is one of local control. Johnson said she is not certain if Iowa will ever allow counties and communities to have more of a voice in issues of livestock confinement development.
"I would hope for that, but nobody wants to draw the line in the sand and say, 'you are a farmer, and you are an industry'," she said.
Johnson personally feels that counties with major lakes, like Dickinson and Buena Vista, should be able to refuse any hog confinements within a mile of their lakes, in order to preserve those natural resources.
"There should be areas where a county can say that it wants residential development, and does not want animal feeding operations to go and destroy the outlook for the area the county is putting money into for other forms of development," Johnson said.
"On the other hand, there should be places the county allows additional livestock feeding to come in. In Buena Vista County we are an ag county and we should develop ag. Just not where a person has invested and built a house and then has to worry about a large livestock operation coming in 1,250 feet away next door."
Johnson is not sure if the entire board of supervisors will make a stand before the EPC, if it comes to that. "We will make a presentation, and we will have board representation," she said. "Right now, all we can do is wait to hear from the DNR."