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Environmental advocate Jean Wonser has written the op-ed seen below, which will appear in the Gainesville Sun on Sunday, January 10, 2016.
Jean Wonser: Check county rules on factory farms
Chickens huddle in their cages at an egg processing plant in California.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez,File
By Jean Wonser
Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 7, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 2:31 p.m.
Suppose you awake one morning, in your peaceful country subdivision, to hear multiple dump trucks arriving next door at an 80-acre location defined as being for “agriculture land use.” You pick up the phone to a neighbor asking, “What’s going on next door to us?” Nobody knows.
This actually happened in a North Florida county recently. The search for answers moved across multiple agency desks and eventually a neighbor discovered, “We are being invaded by a chicken factory.”
The search was not easy, however, as neighbors were dumbfounded with the responses to their queries. It went like a dog chasing its tail, round and round. Logic would have one call the building department. They did not know most ag buildings do not require a building permit.
There was no notice posted on the property as it was not a zoning change. No county commissioners had advance knowledge for there was no change in county rules required. The property appraiser was unaware of any change in tax rate regarding use of the property. The county attorney was unaware as the county had no requirement for a special exception in ag use of a property.
Somebody called the Department of Environmental Protection since it was close to the river and springshed. Still no word. Finally the water management district was asked and somebody recalled there was a request for an environmental resource permit. Lo and behold there was a tiny legal notice in an out-of-county paper requesting such a permit.
At that point the whole neighborhood knew the bad news. The remaining option was hire an attorney to figure a way to save the residential neighborhood. And where was the money for that?
It turned out that even an injunction was not a simple task. All the agencies involved had rules, reasons and excuses of why there was “nothing we can do.” This is the simple explanation. Nobody outside of a lawyer with environmental, judicial or governmental experience could even understand the excuses agencies put out to several citizens working on a protest. The excuses would boggle the mind of a normal citizen.
So how do you know industrial farms could not move into your neighborhood? Let’s face the problem: Most north Florida counties have many rural subdivisions surrounding actual family farms. What is to prevent those farms from going industrial? Industrial farms are described online as CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations. The critters are confined to barns, sheds and pens for all their living needs until the time to ship off to processing, usually meat operations.
The list of neighborly concerns is lengthy from insects, odors, nitrate pollution, commercial traffic, the loss of scenery and visions of such inhumane treatment of another earth creature. Then there’s the destruction of earth to build the facilities. Water pollution is a top concern.
Obviously some counties around here have very weak land-use rules. At the very least determine that your county requires a special exception for intensive uses. Be certain the list of intensive uses includes all imaginable uses that would be disruptive in a neighborhood. Beware that if the intensive use was there first, it cannot be thrown out. But if there is a subdivision there and already built, that may means those owners perhaps have standing to object in the future.
To get your county land-use element tougher will require the county take action to rewrite its rules about new uses. With all the rural subdivisions allowed in the past mixed into ag areas, there should be no reason those subdivisions cannot be protected from future invasions. But it has to be done on a county level.
Currently the state won’t protect your land and water. The DEP has rules but they are considered weak by most environmental groups. Even water management districts are still waffling about protecting the springsheds. For example, the lower Santa Fe River is already below the recommended minimum flows and levels yet they still issue permits for pumping ag fields.
The bottom line for protecting your rural residence from intensive agricultural conversion is check the land-use regulations in your county. If there are no restrictions about land use, problems can develop. County rules must be carefully stated to avoid conflicts with the Right to Farm Act. Actually we should all nag our legislators to shape up that statute to also protect rural subdivisions from factory farms moving into the neighborhood.
Begin pressing for detail in those regulations about future use. If you ignore the need for tough rules, the potential is wide open for another chicken factory invasion.
— Jean Wonser lives in Gilchrist County.