Barbara Llewellyn has kindly given us permission to publish the following article by Celeste Rubanick, which appeared in the November edition of The Observer. OSFR thanks her, Celeste and the anonymous typist.
Residents: Chicken Farm Endangers Area Water
The Alachua • High Springs • Newberry Observer
By Celeste Rubanick
November 2015, Volume 13, Number 9
Fort White is a small town in southeastern Columbia County, just across the Santa Fe River from High Springs. It is known for its proximity to the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers, and hundreds of colorful tubes for rent decorate several buildings from May to September. There’s one traffic light in town and few stores, and the residents cherish the slow-paced atmosphere.
But right now, many of the residents are furious and scared.
In May, 77 acres of land, approximately one mile from downtown and one and a half miles from springs and rivers, were purchased by the Huynh family from Land O’Lakes, Fla. They are currently constructing a chicken farm that will house up to 300,000 chicken in 12 barns. Every 45 to 60 days — when the “broilers” are the proper weight — they will be picked up by Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, the largest chicken producer in the U.S.
Because the property is zoned “Ag 3”, no permits are required for agricultural use of the land other than an Environmental Resource General Permit, which was approved by the Suwannee River Water Management District soon after the application was submitted on July 9. This means no building permits, no public announcements, no water use permits, no code enforcement, no newspaper notifications, and no signs notifying the public of proposed development on the property were required.
Abby Johnson, Governmental Affairs and Communication Coordinator, Suwannee River Water Management District, explained, “It was a simple project with limited review criteria. The application had all the information we needed.” A few people complained at the meeting that some of the questions on the form had not been answered.
Local residents didn’t know what was going on until trucks with fill-dirt and building materials began rolling down Wilson Springs Road, a narrow two lane paved road that leads to the only site access, the private dirt Briar Patch neighborhood road that is maintained at the homeowners’ organization’s expense.
Clarence Williams, who lives across the street from the property, said at the October 15th Columbia County Commission meeting, “I had no idea why the land was being cleared and built on. I’m ashamed to know you kept it secret.”
Two of the four commissioners immediately said they had found out about it only two weeks prior, but Rusty DePratter, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners and the County Commissioner of District 2, that covers Fort White, said he was aware of it 30 to 45 days previously.
Public outcry is centered on the farm’s proximity to the pristine springs and rivers, a sinkhole (former phosphate mine) on the property that reaches down to the aquifer, the use by the farm of 18 – 20,000 gallons of water per day, and the storage and transport of 180 tons of “litter.” Litter consists of chicken waste, feathers, solid and fallen bedding.
Additional concerns were raised about destroyed gopher tortoise nests, smell, decreased property values, bird flu, and tractor trailers using Wilson Springs Road. Several people questioned where the dirty water would go when the 12 chicken houses were cleaned every 45 – 60 days.
“When you drive down the roads here,” one person said, “you see all those blue springs protection area signs with a scuba diver on them warning everyone to be careful because we’re so close to the springs and rivers; everything we do affects them. Why spend all that money on signs when you’re not going to follow your own rules?”
More than 100 people attended the meeting, a total of 43 people spoke against the project, and petitions with thousands of signatures were turned in. Although the owners of the property did not attend the meeting — and declined to comment for this article — Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation’s representative, Jason Scarborough, seemed surprised by all the negative comments.
“I came here because I heard there was some grumbling,” he said. “I never experienced this before.” Twice he said, “I didn’t have to come here.” He explained Pilgrim’s Pride buys chickens from 150 growers with 535 chicken houses of 22,000 to 26,000 birds each.
He continued, “The owner of this property came to me six months ago and asked how she could produce chickens for us. I told her the process and she bought the land and did what she was supposed to do. One of our employees goes on the property at least once a week. And if she doesn’t follow our guidelines, we won’t use her.”
Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation’s website tells potential growers: “We provide the birds, feed, and technical and veterinary services, while growers provide the labor, housing, litter, utilities, and most importantly, the knowledge and expertise that’s essential to maintaining the Pilgrim’s standard of excellence.” The majority (75 percent) of Pilgrim’s Pride belongs to the Brazilian food giant, JBS.
Tax records show that Jenny Huynh, daughter of Larry and Terry Huynh bought the property for $177,000 in May 2015, and her parents bought it from her for the same price three months later. Scarborough estimated they have invested three million dollars in the operation.
County Commissioner Ronald Williams said, “We hadn’t heard a word about this until the last board meeting. Why, when the application’s dated July? There’s a fine line where these [chicken] operations should be. None of us knew about it. This board is committed to protect the quality of the water in Columbia county.”
“We do what we can to protect our natural resources,” County Commissioner Scarlet Frisina added. “I agree with you about the water, but other than that, you chose to move into an agricultural community, and then you get upset when ag practices are performed. … You can’t have your cake and eat it too. … I would have to choose to put up with it, or move. That would be my choices. I want to see what we can do about the water.”
Diana Herrick, who lives very close to the site, said, “There are only two reasons people live in Fort White. They were either born and raised in this area, or they escaped from somewhere else to be near the woods and the water. The people around here don’t have a problem with agriculture and farming, but the location of the farm has potential to harm the most precious resource in this community, our springs and rivers.”
County Attorney Joel Foreman explained that the board’s power was limited due to the property’s Ag 3 zoning and the Florida Right To Farm Act. It appeared the only chance of stopping the farm would be if a special permit were required for intensive agricultural use. JTC Farm would not be considered intensive unless the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) required an industrial waste water permit from them.
“So it depends on the FDEP,” Foreman concluded. “I’m not going to give you false hope. I can’t stop it. But we’re trying. That’s all we can tell you.”
Eric Larsen, President of the Briar Patch Homeowners’ Association and closest neighbor to the farm addressed the situation, “First and foremost, this area is more sensitive than most, given its high recharge designation to the aquifer. We are directly above it. … There is also documented sinkhole activity as well as holes left from phosphate mining. You can see standing water in these holes even with very little recent rain.” (The water is the top layer of the aquifer.)
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson of Our Santa Fe River, Inc. added, “We must stop this impending water, air, and land crisis. Help stop this huge chicken fiasco in the Santa Fe River basin, a springshed (Wilson and Sunbeam springs), a watershed, a high recharge for the Floridan aquifer, and in a recreational tourism destination known as the Santa Fe and Ichetucknee Rivers.”
In a letter dated October 21 to the Board of County Commissioners, Foreman wrote that Tom Kallemeyn of the DEP was working with the landowner to reach a formal determination as to whether a waste water permit will be required. He warned that the process could take several weeks to complete.
Construction continues on the property at a reportedly increased rate.