Editor’s note: This article is a clear example of how capitalism and democracy are contradictory to one another. When the aspirations of a whole community are silenced in favor of accumulation of wealth for a few people, democracy is squelched. Community autonomy is democracy, and that includes collective determination of how resources are used and protected.
When Ron Leys and other members of the Crawford County Board approved a livestock farm siting law four years ago, they thought they were giving themselves more control over where big farms go.
Then came a proposal from a pig farm to expand on hilly ground just a few hundred yards from the boundaries of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway.
And Leys, chairman of the county board, discovered the siting law afforded little protection. Instead, it appeared, the rules – which had been written by the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection – largely block challenges by local communities to factory farms.
“These guys have put the handcuffs on us so tightly that we can’t move,” he said.
The law sets standards for location, odor and air emissions, manure spreading and runoff management, and manure storage. Town or county boards have the choice of adopting the rules or relying upon their own zoning rules.
The problem, Leys said, is that the state regulations are weak and the law prevents a local town or county from setting tougher standards without an expensive legal challenge.
Local officials throughout Wisconsin are coming to the same realization.
In Rock County, residents in the town of Magnolia now are in court because the state board that has final say over where large farms are located overruled the conditions the town put on a proposed farm expansion. Those conditions, which included tougher standards to protect surface and groundwater, were upheld in circuit court. The case is now before a state appeals court.
Warned of possible suit
In the Taylor County town of Little Black, officials have been warned by DATCP that they could open themselves to lawsuits if they try to pass stricter controls on odor from a proposed factory farm, for example, or tougher laws to protect their groundwater from the proposed farm’s high-capacity wells.
“We are being pushed and bullied,” said Neil Micke, a member of the town’s planning committee.
Since the state’s livestock facility siting law was put in place in 2006, none of the 50 requests to build or expand a farm has been turned down.
When the law was passed by the state, it required DATCP to conduct a review of the legislation after four years. That review is under way. Critics of the law, such as Leys, are hoping the review will prompt changes that will swing the pendulum back toward local control.
Among them is Matt Urch, who owns a small grass-fed livestock operation in Vernon County and has been involved in efforts to prevent construction of a nearby factory farm on the outskirts of Viroqua.
“I am outraged that the state of Wisconsin deemed it necessary to pass a law designed to protect the economic interests of factory farms by stripping away the ability of local citizens to pass common-sense measures to protect the health and safety of both people and the environment,” said Urch.