Chicken house plans worry neighbors on Bedford County line

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

For the second month in a row, Bedford County planning commissioners spent most of their monthly meeting talking about the issue of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

The subject is of interest to some Marshall County residents represented by Commissioner Rocky Bowden because a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is planned just across the county line.

Bedford planners decided last month against trying to regulate Class 1 CAFOs in the county zoning ordinance, largely because they've been told the state's so-called "Right To Farm Act" prohibits local zoning from restricting agriculture. Some communities have tried to regulate CAFOs anyway, but those regulations haven't been tested in court.

CAFOs do have to contend with regulations from Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and they may need to file an environmental study with the Farm Service Agency if they're seeking agriculture-related federal financing.

The planning commission began its CAFO discussion months ago in theory, without reference to any specific proposal, but in that time neighbors of two different sites have come before the planners asking them to intercede and prevent developers from placing large numbers of poultry houses on a site.

When planners decided last month not to try to regulate CAFOs, they encouraged Tyson Foods to rely on the University of Tennessee's guidelines for poultry house placement when deciding whether to contract with new sites or operators. Wally Taylor of the local Tyson plant called those guidelines "a good basis for voluntary restrictions on the way poultry houses are constructed" during last month's meetings, and said Tyson wants its contractors to be good neighbors.

But neighbors of a proposed chicken house site in western Bedford County, near the county line, say they are still concerned about the impact of a proposed chicken house development near them. The residents' spokesman, Glenn McGehee of Nolensville, who identified himself as a friend of the Cochran family living near the site, presented charts and maps related to the proposal.

The families got a copy of the proposed developer's application with TDEC and the FSA environmental study. One Planning Commission member identified the developer's name as Robert Breeding.

"There's a lot of errors in there," said McGehee, adding that the two documents don't always agree. There area has many sinkholes, according to McGehee, and he questioned the development's impact on ground water. He also said there are more houses within 1,000 feet of the project than stated in the FSA study.

The developer could close on the property this month once the FSA loan is approved, McGehee said.

But planners responded that their hands were tied and they had no way to block the project.

"That starts at the legislative level," planning commissioner Linda Yockey said. "We're just the peons down here."

Bowden attended the Bedford planners' meeting and said some residents on his side of the county line are also concerned about the project, and he was surprised when the Bedford County planners told him they had no authority to stop it.

Bedford County planning and zoning director Chris White said that if the county were to overstep its bounds in terms of zoning, "we'd be putting our taxpayers at risk of civil litigation." No one mentioned it Tuesday night, but the City of Shelbyville is involved in a five-year-old, multi-million-dollar legal challenge from a firm that claims the city overstepped its bounds by not allowing a quarry to be developed.

White said at least one of the county commissioners representing the area has expressed a willingness to go and speak to Tyson on behalf of the neighbors. David Crump, the Planning Commission member representing the area where the project is proposed, said he would participate as well. Planners said that this might be the best avenue available to the neighbors at present. They also urged them to speak to their state legislators about the laws governing CAFOs.

Planning Commission Chairman Kennon Threet, a farmer who's served on the Bedford County Utility District Board, said that the right-to-farm laws date back to the 1930s but that farming has changed dramatically since that time, with operations like Class 1 CAFOs that would not have been imagined at the time.

Numerous neighbors attending Tuesday night's meeting insisted on the right to speak anyway, talking about everything from the quality of ground water to the area's historic significance, dating back to Civil War days.

"My good clean well is very, very valuable," one woman said.

The farm's historic status offers one possible legal challenge, White said. If the developer plans to subdivide the property for business reasons - although it's not clear that he would - such a subdivision would have to come before the Board of Zoning Appeals and then the Planning Commission for approval because of the historic significance. But that would only stop or slow down the project if the project was contingent on subdividing the property.

Yockey told the crowd that she has been in their shoes, too. Yockey was one of those who questioned the expansion of Quail Hollow Landfill near Raus in the 1990s.

Planners said they would try to organize a meeting between the two county commissioners representing that district, as well as Crump, and Tyson officials.