Washington County residents showed up in full force to a public meeting Thursday night to protest construction of large chicken growing operations there to supply a new Costco processing plant.
Opponents, many wearing T-shirts that said “Neighbors United,” flooded into the hallway and stayed to testify past midnight. They cited traffic, noise, pollution, disease and declining property values as concerns to the Washington County Planning Commission. At least 300 people attended the meeting.
Six sites are being considered, and some could house up to 190,000 chickens.
The six farming operations are seeking conditional use permits to operate chicken barns near Blair, Arlington and Telbasta. Farmers will raise chickens for slaughter at the Costco plant in Fremont, slated to open in late 2019.
Two of the proposals drew the most opposition: Erik and Calli Solls’ four-barn site near Arlington, and Case Camenzind’s eight barns, which would be south of Blair and east of Kennard.
The Solls come from farm families that go back several generations, and raising chickens would allow them to diversify their income, Calli Soll said.
Doing so would allow them to “continue to farm without fear,” Calli Soll said. Low commodity prices on corn and soybeans have made farming crops less profitable.
It would also allow her to quit her retail job — at Costco in Omaha, she said.
“I know there are people worried about their view, but we are worried about making a living for our family,” she said.
Each of the Solls’ barns could house up to 47,500 chickens.
Several residents of Arlington said they were concerned about their property values, including Tracy Scalf, who lives a mile and a half away from the Solls’ site. She said she picked the land she built her home on because of the view.
“They gotta go somewhere, but not in our backyards. That’s just not the appropriate place. I have a beautiful home up there. I’d like to keep it beautiful,” Scalf said.
Dusty Bell of Fontanelle said she lives three-quarters of a mile from the proposed site. She worried that the increased traffic and pollution could harm children in the area.
“Nothing good is going to come of this except someone’s going to make some money,” Bell said. “A lot of other people are going to be hurt, including children.”
The commission voted 6-1 to recommend that the County Board approve the Solls’ conditional use permit for 25 years, with a review after one year. The couple had sought a 75-year permit.
The commissioners voted unanimously to recommend denying Camenzind’s site a conditional use permit, but recommended approval for four of the other six sites.
Camenzind said his family will explore other options.
“We don’t intend on giving up,” he said.
Another site, near Herman, Nebraska, also was denied a recommendation based on the fact that the 16 proposed barns would be built in a floodplain. The applicant, Amy Trinh, was not present at the meeting.
Walt Shafer, chief operating officer of Lincoln Premium Poultry, recommended that the commissioners table the proposal until the applicant can be present.
“We will be coming before you again with other growers. I hope there’s a place for us in Washington County,” Shafer told the commissioners.
A final decision will be made by the County Board on April 24 at 3 p.m.
Camenzind said the eight barns he’d like to build on his land would allow him and his wife to return to the fifth-generation family farm full time.
“We can finally come back to the farm full time because of the economic diversity this will provide,” Camenzind told the commissioners.
Ted Japp, who lives just west of the site, said the barns would be an eyesore and would not fit in with the single family homes, housing developments and acreages nearby.
“It’s like a giant onion populating a petunia patch. It just doesn’t work there,” Japp said.
Maria Bledsoe, owner of Skinny Bones Pumpkin Patch three miles from the Camenzind site, agreed with Japp. She cited the roughly 290 homes within a 2-mile radius of the barns. She said the barns would be industrial, not agricultural.
“Leave Highway 133 the gateway to Blair and not the gateway to this chicken barn,” she said.
Dodge County Board members last year unanimously approved a permit for a farmer to build four chicken barns housing a total of 60,000 birds. It was the first operation approved to supply Costco.
Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company that will operate the plant, has said the farmers it contracts with will be going above and beyond by applying to the state for construction and operating permits.
The Costco plant has faced fierce opposition from the start from residents of Fremont and Dodge County, who cited concerns like an influx of immigrant workers and pollution. The plant received approval from the City of Fremont and the State of Nebraska last year.
Other counties within a 60-mile radius of the Costco plant — where barns could be built — include Burt, Butler, Cass, Colfax, Cuming and Dodge. Project representatives have said there hasn’t been much interest from Lancaster or Douglas Counties.