By Laura Simmons
Howes Township is frustrated with a court decision and a 2019 bill that lessened local control, giving it back to the state.
Howes Township has been fighting the addition of a concentrated animal feeding operation since 2016 when it was first proposed. The court’s decision in North Dakota Farm Bureau vs. Howes Township was released late July 2022, siding with each of North Dakota Farm Bureau’s claims, allowing a pig barn to be built closer to city limits than Howes Township wanted.
“A pig barn is a pig barn,” said Randy Coon, a farmer with land in Howes Township. “They have the same problems everywhere they are. They spew out harmful chemicals and toxic fumes from their manure lagoon.”
Coon said the Farm Bureau was taking sides, citing the 14 Farm Bureau members who were in favor of the Howes Township land setbacks in comparison to the two Farm Bureau members, Gerald and Randal Melvin, who were in opposition.
Howes Township Supervisor and Chairman Ron Fraase said Howes Township is not against livestock. Instead, they want it to be done the right way, he said.
“(Howes Township) has always followed the law,” Fraase said. (The North Dakota Farm Bureau is) making us look like we were doing things wrong.”
North Dakota Farm Bureau President Daryl Lies said the North Dakota Farm Bureau supports animal agriculture. He said it will add value, bumping up corn and soybean prices due to local demand.
North Dakota is behind neighboring states in animal agriculture due to regulations, Lies said.
This was a prime example,” Lies said. “There was a facility that was proposed to be built to raise hogs and it was going to be owned by several farmers and their families. Overzealous regulation pushed them out of here and now we don’t have that opportunity.”
Randal Melvin was one such farmer involved in the proposed facility to raise hogs in Howes Township.
Melvin said he was thinking about his family when considering starting an animal feeding operation. He said there needs to be about 2000 acres per family member in order to be economically sustainable. Increasing the acreage of corn, wheat, and beans wasn’t sustainable, Melvin said.
“My goal is before the day I die, there’ll be animal agriculture on our farm,” Melvin said. “I can't tell you if it's gonna be in the next two years or the next five years, but we're looking at some options and we are proceeding.”
North Dakota Farm Bureau’s Lawyer Tyler Leveringtonsaid there are misguided fears surrounding animal agriculture. He said animal agriculture is much more technologically advanced than it was 30 to 40 years ago. Leverington said animal feeding operations are often underground and use chemicals to keep the facilities clean and less impactful.
Leverington said the state legislature has made changes based on what animal feeding operations look like in 2022.
“Townships have authority to impose certain kinds of regulations on animal feeding operations,” Leverington said. “Howes Township just went way above and beyond the amount of authority that they actually have.”
One provision of the court case was centered around 2019 Senate Bill 2345, which states townships must provide “compelling, objective evidence” to increase the distance of a concentrated animal feeding operation from the town by up to 50%. This setback can be overruled by the North Dakota agricultural commissioner and the attorney general.
Howes Township used the 50% setback variance. Their evidence was deemed not compelling June 2020 by North Dakota’s Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring, stating that the evidence was outdated, not specific to the township and contradictory.
Howes Township Chairman Fraase said he was bothered by Goehring’s decision because he said Goehring never talked to Howes Township nor did he come to see why the site was a problem.
“You just took local control away,” Fraase said. “We might as well not have the law in the books that has a variance because nobody's gonna get to use it anyway.”
Farmer Randy Coon said he thinks the consideration of the objective, compelling evidence was not truly objective. A review of Howes Township’s evidence was done by NDSU. Coon said he didn’t think the analysis was objective because NDSU is in favor of pig farms.
Coon said the evidence should be reviewed by an objective panel that both sides agree is neutral.
“I don’t think their (NDSU’s) rejection of the analysis was valid,” Coon said.
Former North Dakota State Senator Jim Dotzenrod said he was originally in favor of 2019 Senate Bill 2345, which he said was made to give back local control by requiring concentrated animal feeding operations to receive local approval before going to the state.
However, Dotzenrod said the North Dakota House of Representatives adopted amendments that allowed local setbacks to be overruled by the state if they can’t find compelling, objective evidence, which Dotzenrod said is a term with no legal definition and therefore in the eyes of the beholder.
“The only thing left at the local level is the setback between residences or occupied buildings,” Dotzenrod said. “(The amended bill) took a share of that away from the local subdivision end and set it aside and granted that to the state, which I objected to.”
Dotzenrod said most concentrated animal feeding operations are welcomed. He said if local support is received, then you’ll have a project free of controversy for many years.
Farm Bureau President Lies said certain aspects are better dealt with at the state level. One example he used was environmental. Lies said the Department of Environmental Quality has the expertise and resources local townships can’t afford.
Lies added that state control helps keep neighbor and family history out of decisions.
“If we can take some of that local emotion out of it and base the things on science and facts, (then) I think this is the positives of having some of this regulated in a uniform way at the state level,” Lies said.
The North Dakota Farm Bureau wants to work with townships and they want to avoid legal action, Lies said. But, Lies added, the North Dakota Farm Bureau has to protect people’s ability to do as they see fit with their private property.
Coon said he doesn’t think the North Dakota Farm Bureau is representing farm families. Instead he said they’re representing corporations.
“The Farm Bureau claims that they're for local control,” Coon said. “They’re only for local control when it suits their narrative.”
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