DATCP board hears more comments on Livestock Siting, report on hearings

Jan Shepel
At last week's meeting of the policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, was one of a number of officials, farmers and citizens who made comments on the proposed Livestock Siting rules package that recently went out to hearings around the state.

MADISON – When the citizen policy board for the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection met on September 19 in Madison, the subject of new livestock siting rules was on the minds of many who attended. Some took advantage of a public comment period that is allowed at each meeting of the board. The board also heard from staff members who worked on the recent series of hearing.

Lacy Cochart, director of the Land and Water Resources Bureau, which is in charge of the proposed rule changes, said her staff didn’t have any hearing changes yet since the comment period had closed only a few days before. There were 12 hearings, held at six locations throughout the state with 380 people in attendance and 160 who testified.

“No one walked away without being heard,” she told the board in her report. The Spooner hearing had the largest number of attendees with 75; there were 65 at the Madison hearing.

Cochart said that when there were fewer people in attendance at a hearing, DATCP staffers allowed people an unlimited time to voice their thoughts on the proposed rule changes. When there were more people, they were given seven or eight minutes to speak.

She said she observed people who had different perspectives on the issues having their own private discussions after the hearings and felt that “a lot of those people walked away from the hearings with information they didn’t have before.”

Testimony at the hearings included much information that is outside the purview of the Livestock Siting process, she added. “It is outside of our scope of authority, and we explained that to them. A lot of the comments would more properly be addressed to the Department of Natural Resources, although we at DATCP won’t ever tell people that’s not our job,” she said. There were DNR staffers at a number of the hearings.

Cochart noted that a large number of comments related to fees and costs and the individual cost of compliance. Some farmers, she said, cried as they testified because their cows were leaving their farms on the day of the hearing. Many farmers gave very specific examples of how their farms would be affected by the change in siting rules.

“We heard a lot of comments about adding local government authority. Others testified that all manure storage should be evaluated – not just those structures that are 10 years old,” she said.

Many of those testifying said that the nutrient management plans should require farmers to prove they have the land to spread all their manure – through signed contracts with landowners. One of the most commented-on areas of the rule was that relating to setbacks and odors. “We heard from neighbors (of large farms) that it reduces their property values.

“Almost all thanked you for the opportunity to speak,” she told the board.

Christopher Clayton, the agency’s program manager for Livestock Siting, told the board that he had looked at existing rules and the proposed rules as they related to a number of farms in Shawano County, comparing them to see how the proposed rules would have affected their expansions.

Shawano County has issued over a dozen permits since the program began and six of those farms had expanded in recent years. Several of them, he said, would have been able to meet the requirements set out in the proposed rules. Some would have had to purchase additional land parcels to meet the setback standards in the new rules.

Board member Paul Palmby asked Clayton: “If a municipality doesn’t adopt this Livestock Siting ordinance and I’m a farmer, can I build whatever I want?” Clayton said that as long as the farm was small enough not to require a DNR permit, there is no other permit required in those non-participating municipalities.

Dan Smith, who was recently named to the policy board and was attending his first meeting as a board member, said that he had heard many comments on both sides of the issue about the professionalism of the DATCP staff.

Cochart thanked him, adding, “We wish we had a vehicle that could solve all the problems for local communities and for all of the farmers. This isn’t that vehicle, but we will continue to work with those people to address their comments and concerns.”

The board does not have a meeting scheduled in October, but will revisit the revised Livestock Siting rule at its November meeting.

Secretary-designee Brad Pfaff said the rule has been three years in the making adding that the “hard work begins now".

“We will handle this in the most even-handed, professional way we can. Nobody has a thumb on the scale. We greatly appreciate the decision you made in July to allow these hearings,” Pfaff said.

“This process wouldn’t work without public input,” said board chair Miranda Leis.

Public comment

Several people made comments to the board ahead of the analysis given by the staff.

Mike Koles, executive director of the Wisconsin Towns Association, told board members that “things have changed. There are certain things DATCP is doing now that are not justified in the statute.”

He also told them that he had not planned to speak to them during the public comment period but that things had happened in recent days that made him want to make his comments.

Koles thanked the board for its decision in July to hold public hearings – “it’s time” and noted that “some have chosen to use the hearings as an opportunity to attack large farms. This rule isn’t intended to be a way to demonize those farms.”

The officials at DATCP don’t regulate CAFOs – confined animal feeding operations – but many of the statements at the public hearings would lead you to believe that this is the case, he added. “ATCP 51 is a model ordinance and local municipalities can adopt this model ordinance and work within it or don’t adopt this as a model ordinance.

“There is significant misunderstanding of what this rule is and what this rule is not,” Koles told the board.

Much of the criticism of the rule centers around the change in regulations on odor. Koles noted that the “odor scoring system,” which is based on science and which was adopted in the original rule, is being phased out by other states because the “science is going away.” There won’t be research to base the odor scoring system on, which is a good justification for taking it out of the rule, he noted.

However, the setbacks in the proposed rule are “pretty strong,” he added and said there needs to be a collaborative process and a “robust discussion” going forward.

"Impractical, inconsistent and unworkable"

Naomi Bernstein, an agricultural engineer and certified crop consultant, told the board that in those capacities she has worked on 70 comprehensive nutrient plans and that she stands opposed to the proposed ATCP 51. She said the setbacks and odor management requirements are “impractical, inconsistent and unworkable.”

She has looked at the proposed rules and compared them to some of her customers who have current siting permits. One of them, she commented, would have only a 65-foot wide strip in the middle of the property on which to site a manure structure. “This will create more environmental problems than it will help,” she said, adding that six months is not a long enough time to get the permitting and work done. “The proposed timeline is not feasible.”

Dave Daniels, a third-generation farmer in Kenosha County with 500 Holstein cows, told board members that his farm is situated in the back corner of the property and that his family has always been aware that they need to be good neighbors. But the setbacks included in the new rule have been “drastically increased” and would mean that even a modest expansion of their facilities for the next generation would require a local municipality to grant a variance.

“Farmers care about their neighbors. Farmers need to be included in the discussion,” Daniels said.

John Holevoet, director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, told the board that farmers are “solution-based” people and that their organization has identified key concerns and changes that need to be made in the rule.

Kara O’Connor, with Wisconsin Farmers Union, told the citizen policy board that she wanted to see the agency move forward with the rules package and “make the rules stronger.”

She quoted Tom Crave, president of the DBA, who said that the current rules are working. O’Connor countered that the odor, dust and noise from large farms are “eroding property values of rural homeowners” and she doesn’t see that as “working.” She also noted that the $1,000 cap on permit fees charged to farm operators is not working, in light of Green County which had to spend $40,000 to navigate the permit process for a large dairy farm there.

For and against

O’Connor also said the rule is silent on animal incineration, which some farms have begun doing to get rid of dead cattle and which creates odor problems of its own.

“The call to slow down on this rule is out of place. At a certain point we have done our due diligence and we need to move forward,” she said. “It’s disingenuous to say there hasn’t been enough input from groups who argued not to hold public hearings.”

(Before the DATCP board moved to take the rule package to public hearings, several groups, including DBA had argued that there should be no public hearings. Several GOP lawmakers also filed letters with the agency, urging them not to hold public hearings.)

O’Connor said there has been some “unfortunate hyperbole” from those opposed to further regulation, saying that farms would be put out of business.

Dave Wade, with the Wisconsin Pork Association, told the board that he was opposed to the rule revisions noting that most farms expand to add another family member to the farming operation. Specifically, he commented on engineering issues related to the rule that would require manure structures to be emptied for inspection.

Many hog operations have under-floor manure storage and they are not designed to be emptied for inspection.

Jennifer Wickman, the director of government affairs for the Cooperative Network, spoke against the advancement of the rule, adding that the package of rules “should be sent back to a comprehensive task force that includes stakeholders.”

Lake Mills resident Anita Martin told the board that she supports the addition of a sixth worksheet in the permit process – one that would outline the damage caused to rural roads and the cost to rural municipalities caused by the traffic from large farms. She said this sixth worksheet should also outline public health and safety.