Group Utilizes Communications Tools: A Victory for Water and Sustainable Agriculture

Group Utilizes Communications Tools: A Victory for Water and Sustainable Agriculture

By Andrew C. Hanson, Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc. – Lake Michigan Basin

Manitowoc County, situated in northeastern Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Michigan, could have become home to one of the largest feedlots east of the Mississippi River.

When Dvorak Beef Farms, LLC proposed to construct a 5,000 head feedlot, feed storage complex, and manure digester/power plant in a residential and agricultural area of the Town of Gibson to supply beef on a contract basis to Smithfield Foods – owned by Packerland Packing in Green Bay, public concern mounted. Although Dvorak and Smithfield are separate business entities, Smithfield Foods has been labeled by the Sierra Club as one of the worst polluters in the United States, having been fined 12.6 million dollars in 1997 by the federal government for polluting the Pagan River in Virginia.

In addition to impacts to roads and traffic, noise, dust, and odors from the freestall barns for neighbors directly adjacent to the facility, the residents were also concerned about groundwater depletion and contamination, as well as surface water pollution. Area wells already had high nitrate contamination and there was further concern about the presence of sinkholes because sinkholes can more directly funnel water from the surface down to groundwater supplies.

Unified to stop the feedlot from moving in, residents and farmers in the Town of Gibson formed a new grassroots organization: Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment.With the support of the Great Lakes Aquatic Habitat Network and Fund through Midwest Environmental Advocates, a nonprofit environmental law center in Wisconsin, they began their battle. In addition to writing letters to the editor, distributing flyers, attending public meetings expressing opposition to the feedlot and voicing their concern that the feedlot would industrialize the rural residential and agricultural atmosphere of the Town of Gibson, the group also produced yard signs. At the start, yard signs were hand painted with several different messages including “Save our water Stop the Feedlot” and “No Feedlot”. As more requests were received for signs, a new sign was made that read,“FARMING YES ANIMAL FACTORIES NO” and there were more than a hundred dotting the countryside.

Promising Responses

In response to the groups’ concerns, the Town of Gibson enacted a resolution raising questions about the impacts of the 5,000 head feedlot and expressing a desire to complete the town’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan before further consideration of the project by the Manitowoc County Board of Adjustment. The neighboring Town of Kossuth, where much of the manure from the facility would be landspread, enacted a resolution opposing the 5,000 head feedlot.

Unfortunately, intimidation and the threat of a lawsuit were used to attempt to silence members of Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment, and in one instance, even went as far as to threaten to withdraw business contracts from an employer of an individual member.These tactics only solidified the public’s opposition to the 5,000 head feedlot.

To operate in Manitowoc County, Dvorak Beef Farm, LLC had to obtain a Conditional Use Permit that would authorize the siting and location of the feedlot. After a public hearing on November 13, 2002, the Manitowoc County Board of Adjustment unanimously decided to delay its decision for several months.

On February 17, 2003, the Manitowoc County Board of Adjustment met again to consider the application, and denied the feedlot’s Conditional Use Permit application based on concerns about the feedlot’s potential pollution of groundwater and surface water.

In turn, Dvorak Beef Farms, LLC sued Manitowoc County for denying the local permit. Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment (represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates and Garvey & Stoddard) successfully intervened in the case in order to advocate for clean air and water.

Victory in Court

On May 23, 2003, the local community group celebrated when the Circuit Court upheld Manitowoc County’s decision to deny a permit for Dvorak Beef Farms’5,000 head feedlot. In court, Dvorak Beef Farms, LLC attempted to rely on a state statute that limits local water quality regulation (Wis. Stat. s. 92.15).The court ruled that the statute does not apply to Conditional Use Permits, and that the County properly denied the permit for the feedlot.

The local activists did not disband after their victory. In early 2004, when agribusiness got legislators to introduce a divisive bill to limit the authority of local governments to stop expansions of livestock factories (“Factory Farm Siting Act”), they got organized to lobby against it. Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment organized a charter bus of citizens to testify before a legislative committee on the bill. Although the bill ultimately passed, it did so with a requirement to establish new environmental and public health standards. Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment has maintained its presence by testifying before state regulatory agencies to ensure those standards protect air and water quality. Members of the group continue to participate in their local land use planning process as well.

Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment saw a threat to their local streams and groundwater, and got organized to do something about it. Grassroots efforts like theirs help energize the struggle to protect the Great Lakes region and its small communities from poorly sited land uses.

By Andrew C. Hanson, Attorney
Midwest Environmental Advocates, Inc.
702 E. Johnson St., Madison, WI 53703
tel. (608) 251-5047 • ahanson@midwestadvocates.org

-AND-

Ann Zelinski
Citizens for Responsible Agriculture and a Clean Environment
5124 old Hwy Y, Maribel, WI 54227
920-755-4123 • leinwood@starband.net

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