THE PILOT EDITORIAL - Tread carefully on confinements

Thursday, March 28, 2002

The national trend seems to be to rush toward local ordinances banning new livestock confinement facilities - and not without reason.

A lot of frustration has built up in the countryside over the changing face of the rural lifestyle, and in the local boardrooms over a denial of rights in local control.

In the Clear Lake area, moratoriums were enacted in near-emergency style, obviously aimed at sending a huge chicken and egg project off to scratch in greener pastures.

In area counties such as Clay and Pocahontas, the discussions toward such possible action seem more health-related and cautious. At least three other Iowa counties have started discussions on a moratorium, but are also treading with care.

They should. Franklin County has already decided to repeal its one year ban on confinement building, finding it laced with procedural problems. They will start all over, and if they pass another ban, will face at least one lawsuit brought by a local farmer who claims the local action can't be enforced in the face of federal and state rules that allow such building.

Buena Vista County, where such a moratorium has been talked about for a few years, is doing nothing, at least for now. They seem content to let other counties fight the battles for a while, but are no doubt watching closely. Confinement development has certainly changed the face of the local countryside.

Wherever Sparboe Farms goes in Iowa, now that its welcome in the Clear Lake area is worn out, will no doubt be the next county to try to pass an ordinance.

Reasons for proposing a ban may vary. In some places, it may really be the health and groundwater issues that are being cited. In others, it may be people concerned about smell, flies or their own property values. In many, it will really be the concerns of smaller livestock producers who fear that they won't be able to compete with the scale of the factory farm confinements.

All are valid issues that the state has tiptoed around for years now. But before we can take action, we have to be honest with ourselves about why we are doing it.

Next, we have to make sure it will stand up. There is little sense to quickly passing a ban that will simply be overruled in court at the first challenge - and rest assured, they will be challenged.

Finally, we have to craft laws that will reflect the real needs of the particular area. If we want local control, we have to take responsibility for local definition, and not just copy the ordinances being passed elsewhere.

Simply banning new buildings for a year will achieve little, except perhaps to scare away an immediate arrival like Sparboe Farms.

We have to remember that a blanket ban can hurt the family farmer looking to add a hog building as much as it does the massive confinement plan of the factory farm that worries us so. It just isn't that simple.

A workable ordinance would probably be complex - involving the number of animals that the local officials feel would be appropriate per acre of land, and perhaps more stringent set-backs and protections for watershed areas as well as clean-up, nuisance and manure- handling issues. Worth County has even tried to regulate maximum allowable toxic gas emission levels at a confinement operation's property line.

We also have to remember that development isn't always a bad word. If we like to eat, confinement operations at some level will be a fact of life. In some areas of Iowa, farm development may be the only kind of tax base boost available.

Locals know their land, their water, their lifestyle and their desires for the future better than anyone in Des Moines or Washington. They should have a voice. But it had better be a voice of reason.

Buena Vista County may be wise to sit back for a moment, watch the fireworks, and think carefully about what development means to us. We can't sit the fence in this battle forever.

Eventually, this county that has been such a leader in both environmentalism and economic development will need to be heard from, and will have to find a common ground to serve both those masters.

Briefly - We applaud Buena Vista President Fred Moore for appointing a task force to determine if there is a problem with alcohol use and abuse on campus.

But we wonder how he feel about the mass of the student body at a recent national-level basketball game being dressed in "Beaver Den" T-shirts with the message in big letters - "Loud, Proud and Plowed." It seems a mixed message, especially with all the children in that crowd.