A sharp decline in the number of Nebraska dairy farms while neighboring states prosper is driven by inconsistent local zoning regulations, some county officials say, and a measure moving through the Legislature aims to rectify the issue with a mandatory set of standards.
Producers looking to settle livestock operations in Nebraska are deterred by regulations that vary across 93 counties, Merrick County zoning administrator Jen Myers said. State agriculture department data shows that since 1999, Nebraska has lost 553 dairy farms, and is down to 195 licensed operations. And in the last decade, the number of cows in Nebraska decreased by 11 percent, while South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado have grown by by 14, 20 and 38 percent respectively.
Sen. Dan Watermeier is sponsoring a bill that would allow the agriculture department to create a matrix of statewide permitting standards to be used by a new seven-member, governor-appointed board in reviewing county decisions to grant or deny special-use permits for livestock expansion.
"If you look at the makeup of a lot of these county commissioner and county zoning people, they don't have a lot of livestock experience and they're turning to someone else to ask these questions," Watermeier, of Syracuse, said. "So we're going to give them something that's black and white to answer some of the fundamental questions."
Opponents are concerned the board wouldn't have residents' best interests at heart, but supporters say current standards limit agricultural development.
When public or personal biases prevent a community from supporting an operation, county boards can block the special-use permit by adding conditions outside the previously stated zoning regulations, Myers said. "That industry alone has put it out there that zoning is not friendly, especially for dairy farmers in Nebraska, so they have gone to other states," she said.
In-state producers say they're affected, too. Lana Bushhousen and her husband applied for a special-use permit in 1999 to house up to 1,000 head of cattle in Howard County, where their family owned a parcel of land.
It was initially approved, but the county overturned the decision after a group of residents petitioned against the permit, Bushhousen said, which delayed the process for more than a year and led her to apply in a different county.
"They just didn't want it there," Bushhousen said, adding she believes opposition was concerned about large-scale livestock feeding operations. "It all came down to a philosophical disagreement."
The Nebraska Farm Bureau has worked with Watermeier and the Nebraska Association of County Officials to craft legislation to protect producers who invested in facilities believing they would be approved, said Jay Rempe, the bureau's vice president of governmental relations.
The state board would have the power to overturn county decisions. Two members would represent livestock interests, three would speak for economic development and two would come from a list approved by the Nebraska Association of County Officials.
"The concept behind the bill was to allow a disinterested party to look at a decision that was made at the local level and to get away from some of the local emotions that flare up," Rempe said.
But that's not the case, current Howard County zoning administrator Cherri Klinginsmith said, because zoning commissioners avoid allowing public opinion to sway their judgment. Klinginsmith did not hold her position during the Bushhousens' permitting process.
Vern Jantzen of the Nebraska Farmers Union said he's wary of a bill that originated from commercial producers and worries statewide changes will be difficult to change. " ... Can you back the train up and switch to a different track, or have we torn the tracks up behind us so we're stuck?" the former hog and dairy farmer from Plymouth said.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins said the bill strips local authorities of tailoring decisions to each county's geography and population. He was one of two people in the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee to vote against advancing the bill for debate.
Longtime residents who don't want to live near a farm with thousands of hogs have a right to fight commercial livestock proposals, he said.
"If they were successful at the county level, why should the state be able to come in and say, 'Oh no, you can put it in their backyard if you want to'?" said Bloomfield, who added he'll filibuster if necessary to block the bill.
Watermeier has designated the measure his priority bill, increasing chances that senators will debate it this year.