Zoning ordinance changes sought

GREENFIELD — The debate about how close animal farming operations should be to neighboring homes is heating up.

A group of Hancock County residents is proposing a change to the county ordinance regarding confined feeding operations (CFOs) and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The Greenfield City Council recently passed a resolution requesting the county consider its 15- and 30-year growth plans when considering any legislation regarding large-scale animal operations.

The group, which was first dubbed Save Our Surroundings (SOS) Hancock County and recently changed its name on its website to ZEPHyr: Zoning Equality and Public Heath, aims to persuade county officials to consider stricter zoning regulations for feeding operations.

It plans to present the ordinance change for consideration to the Hancock County Plan Commission on Tuesday.

In 2008, the county adopted a zoning ordinance regarding such farms. It prohibits large-scale animal operations from locating closer than 750 feet to an existing residential zoning district or an existing residential structure without meeting buffering standards or getting a special exemption from the county’s board of zoning appeals.

It also prohibits residential structures from locating closer than 750 feet from an established feeding operation.

ZEPHyr wants to increase that setback from 750 to 5,200 feet if the operation is located within 5,200 feet of the property boundary line of a group of 10 or more adjacent single-family homes.

It’s a change the group said is the right thing to do, while farmers say it will hurt their operations.

Angela Jackson, who is spearheading the group, said her group isn’t anti-agriculture; it wants to see zoning requirements be more responsible.

The group formed last year after a pig farmer submitted paperwork regarding an expansion of his operation on County Road 300S to Hancock County’s building and planning department.

The group expressed concerns about the effects the farm’s expansion could have on safety, equality of life and property values for homes near the farm. Future economic development of Greenfield could also be jeopardized, the group argued.

Though the farmer ultimately didn’t move forward with the expansion, the group worries about future farmers making similar requests to grow, Jackson said.

She said the amendment she’s proposing doesn’t take expansion off the table for operations within 5,200 feet of a group of homes. Instead, it creates the opportunity for discussion among neighbors, farmers and county officials, she said.

“I don’t think the situation is black or white when agricultural zones and residential zones meet,” she said. “There needs to be individual consideration for each confined feeding operation in those areas, where you force people to reconsider where they live.”

County farmers argue that responsible zoning procedures are already in place.

Mike Lewis’ family has owned a hog operation on U.S. 40 east of Greenfield for more than 50 years. His grandfather built the farm’s first barn in 1955; and since then, it’s stayed in his family.

The amendment the group is asking the county to consider makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for operations to expand, he said.

Lewis helped craft the current ordinance, which he said is reasonable.

But the setback the group is proposing, which is nearly a mile, means farmers looking to expand would need to sit on nearly 1,000 acres of land to meet the requirements.

“There aren’t that many farmers in the area that have that much land,” Lewis said.

Jackson appeared before the county’s plan commission in January to propose the amendment, but state law allows only plan commission members and county commissioners to propose an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

County planning director Mike Dale said he wasn’t aware of the state law when his office allowed Jackson to submit a petition to amend the county zoning code.

Once the issue surfaced at January’s meeting, the plan commission voted to table it for two months.

Now Jackson is preparing to go before the board again. This time, she’ll ask members to consider proposing the ordinance and tell them why she believes changing the ordinance is in the best interest of all parties.

She hopes they’ll listen and at least consider discussing the changes.

“They’re allowing her to simply meet with the plan commission,” Dale said. “It’s simply another business item on the agenda to give her an opportunity to submit her request.”

The board, which has nine members, could respond in a number of ways, he added. It could deny her request or table it indefinitely. Or the board could decide there’s merit to her request and form a sub-committee to explore it further.

It also could decide it wants to amend the ordinance and hold a public hearing on the matter.

Greenfield city officials plan to be there to express their concerns about how potential CAFO and CFO expansions might impact the city’s growth plans.

The city council passed the resolution asking the county to respect the city’s potential growth as it considers the ordinance after being urged to do so by Greenfield resident Donna Steele.

Steele and her husband, Kurt Vetters, live in Greenfield, about two miles north of a large-scale feeding operation.

They worry about the value of their home decreasing and health issues that they say could arise if an operation builds too close to a group of homes or subdivisions.

Steele hopes the city’s resolution will weigh heavy on the minds of those who sit on the plan commission.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. … I only view it as a first step,” she said of the city’s resolution. “Whether it will carry the day, I have no idea.”

Jackson and Steele both agree farmers have a right to perform their business, but they argue homeowners in the vicinity of these operations should have rights, too.

“Our issues are not anti-farming as much as they are pro-responsible zoning,” Steele said.

With the local, state and federal regulations operations must meet, Lewis say farms like his are not as harmful as they’re sometimes portrayed to be.

“Are we concerned about our neighbors? Of course,” he said. “We try to squelch their fears.”

As far as health risks, he points to his own family as proof there’s nothing to fear.

“Since I was 3 years old, there was a barn out my back door,” he said. “I raised my daughters there, and none of us have asthma or any of the other problems people associate with us.”

If you go

What: Hancock County Area Plan Commission

When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Courthouse annex, 111 American Legion Plaza, Greenfield

Note: Meetings are open to the public.

At a glance

A group of Hancock County and Greenfield residents are encouraging the county’s plan commission to amend the county’s code ordinance regarding CAFOs and CFOs.

They want an amendment that would prohibit large animal operations from expanding or building closer than 5,200 feet from residential development without special approval.

Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.