Planners back changes to allow meat processing in ag zones

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By Mitchell Kirk | Daily Reporter

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Planning officials are recommending a rule change that would allow requests to be considered for animal processing in agricultural parts of the county’s unincorporated areas.

County rules currently only allow animal and animal products processing in areas zoned industrial general, and only after the Hancock County Board of Zoning Appeals grants a special exception. The practice is not allowed in areas with agricultural zoning.

But it may be soon. The Hancock County Area Plan Commission gave a favorable recommendation for a proposed amendment to the county zoning ordinance that would allow animal and animal products processing as a special exception also in an agricultural zone. The Hancock County Board of Commissioners will determine whether to adopt the amendment.

“This ordinance certainly isn’t giving carte blanche to someone in the agricultural zone to do animal products processing, but it does give them an avenue of going through the board of zoning appeals to get approval,” said Mike Dale, executive director of the plan commission.

The amendment also defines custom-exempt facilities as “a location where each animal presented for slaughter must be processed, packaged and returned to its owner for consumption within the owner’s home to his/her family and non-paying guests or employees. Products are labeled ‘not for sale.’”

Plan commission members Bill Bolander, Wendell Hester, Mike Long, Tom Nigh, Renee Oldham and Bill Spalding voted in favor of the favorable recommendation on the amendment while Byron Holden voted against.

“I think it makes sense for an ag zone,” Bolander said. “You should be able to do that.”

Holden said he thought the direction intended for the amendment was to only allow custom-exempt facilities as a special exception in the agricultural zone, not larger commercial operations too.

“That’s a big leap for me,” he said.

The proposal was first brought to the plan commission’s attention last month by Steve Rusche, who raises livestock in the county.

“Our interest as a family is to do a custom-exempt butchering facility where we would process animals for people that they would bring to us and we would return it to them,” Rusche said. (Custom-exempt facilities are excused from continuous inspection, unlike those where state and/or federal inspectors must be present whenever slaughtering is occurring.)

His property is zoned agricultural, and it would make little sense to pursue a rezone to industrial to permit that use.

“Maybe there is a large commercial processor who would want to come in, but really the need in the market is for the small processor who can kind of alleviate some of the local burden,” Rusche continued, referring to the long wait times at area processing facilities.

Steve Elsbury, president of Hancock County Sheep Producers, said wait times on butchering a wether lamb is 12 to 15 months. He also recalled opponents living near a commercial animal processing facility in Maxwell approved earlier this summer calling for the operation to be in a more rural part of the county.

“I think the ag zone gives more of an option,” Elsbury said, reiterating that the board of zoning appeals still has the final say. “So if a petition comes to the BZA and it’s right outside three homes, the county has the option to say ‘absolutely not.’”

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