I watched the hearings in December. Not the Trump impeachment hearings in the U.S. House, but the hog barn building permit hearings in Yankton County, S.D.
Three farmers featured in our articles “South Dakota farmer navigates political perils of pig industry” and “Permit fights keep contract hog finishing out of reach” (Jan. 2020, pages 6-7) had their permits for hog barns pulled because they didn’t start work within 180 days of the permits being issued and didn’t resubmit their applications for permits before time ran out.
I don’t know who is right and who is wrong in these cases. The county Board of Adjustment ruled against the farmers — Josh Johnson of Volin and Karl Schenk and Jay Cutts, both of Mission Hill. The farmers’ attorneys are going to appeal the ruling.
But clearly Yankton County’s zoning debate has gotten personal and nasty. Over the past several years, zoning directors have quit or were fired. There were shouting matches at public meetings. Things were said and written that were interpreted as death threats. 911 was called. A protection order was requested. County commissioners were given the Heil Hitler Nazi salute. People have been sued.
I think posts on the Yankton Buzz and the Quality of Life for South Dakota Facebook pages have raised emotions over zoning to a fevered pitch. While these community pages have news and opinions about many subjects, they also contain posts such as:
- “The stink and injustice of life next to an industrial hog farm,” by The Nation
- “The latest livestock pandemic that Big Meat doesn't want you to know about,” by OrganicConsumers.org
- “Public health experts support a ban on CAFOs,” by Civil Eats
- “This is the pork industries biggest secret: Behind the bacon lies of lifetime of misery for millions of animals,” by NowThis News
- “If factory farm conditions are unhealthy for animals, they're bad for people too,” by Ecowatch.com
With a steady diet of such articles and videos from national activist groups, I understand why many people don’t want hog barns built in the county. They fear that they may wake up one day to a CAFO outside of their kitchen window. That odors will make it impossible to use their backyards. That manure will leak into their wells. That farmers won’t follow zoning ordinances that were established to protect them.
I also understand why farmers are upset — even angry. They see their property rights being taken away. That even if they meet all the setback and environmental regulations required to build a feedlot or hog barn, they won’t be treated fairly. That CAFO opponents will never be satisfied, and that they will keep lobbying for evermore restrictions until they succeed in banning CAFOs completely.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you can put up hog barns just anywhere. They need to be set back a long way from neighbors. The sites have to have the right kind of soil and subsoil. Manure can’t leak out of pits, lagoons or containers and get into the ground water. There has to be enough land on which to apply the manure without it running off into surface waters. But such places exist. South Dakota has laws that will protect the environment.
When all zoning and environmental regulations are being met, I think farmers, not townspeople or government officials, should be able to decide how to raise pigs and whether to house them in a barn, outside lot or in pasture. The marketplace can sort out what consumers want, not zoning ordinances.
There are people in Yankton County who want to stop fighting over zoning. They want a fair, orderly process that protects neighbors and the environment but allows for diverse economic growth.
Having to solve every zoning dispute by going to court doesn’t work. It creates winners and losers, cements hard feelings, and sparks feuds that can last years.
The South Dakota Legislature has mistakenly given local governments total control over zoning. It should create a process that takes local politics and personalities out of zoning when it gets bogged down. Local zoning control isn’t working well in Yankton County.