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Legislature Takes Local Zoning Out of Agriculture

Citizens press on with concerns about mega manure

November 25, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

It was a long night in Lansing Wednesday, Dec. 8, for all sides involved in the debate over Senate Bill 205, legislation that prohibits communities from enacting zoning ordinances related to agriculture. The House of Representatives approved the bill at 5:15 a.m. Thursday, the last day of session in 1999. But this did not happen without a lot of sweat on the part of the Michigan Farm Bureau and the Department of Agriculture. These organizations supported the bill over the opposition of hundreds of rural residents, local government officials, and the organizing efforts of the Michigan Land Use Institute, Michigan Environmental Council, Michigan Farmers Union, League of Women Voters of Michigan, Sierra Club-Mackinac Chapter, and the Michigan Townships Association.

Citizens Define the Debate
Governor John Engler is expected to sign S.B. 205 into law. But this is hardly a loss for the rural people and public interest groups who worked so hard to bring the issues of livestock odor and pollution and community rights into focus for Michigan’s media and legislators. Hundreds of people — many of them farmers themselves — showed up at hearings and deluged lawmakers with letters and calls opposing the bill. The issues of livestock wastes and rural property rights are now on the statewide radar screen. That's one thing for which communities can thank S.B. 205.

In fact, the only way S.B. 205 passed the House was because proponents made concessions to local government and environmental concerns. These concessions were weak but significant. They included, for example, a statutory requirement that local authorities be involved in Agriculture Department complaint response inspections, new voluntary siting and odor guidelines, and a promise to create a House subcommittee to look into large livestock pollution and regulation issues. These concessions are in direct response to the outcry legislators heard from a broad cross-section of the public.

Democracy in Action
The Farm Bureau and Agriculture Department were surprised back in October when S.B. 205 did not sail through the House like it had earlier in the Senate. Instead, S.B. 205 proponents faced two months of intense indignation from hundreds of people across Michigan, who opposed this legislative attack on Home Rule and rural residents.

S.B. 205 is not a protection for family-farmers, as advertised, but a green light to the industry’s new, much larger livestock operations. The bill effectively eliminates the local level of government in agriculture issues and forces communities to rely on voluntary state guidelines for environmental, property rights, and public health protection. That’s a serious problem for two reasons: the absence of reliable regulations and the need for responsive local government.

  1. Michigan has no regulations to ensure, for example, that the million-gallon cesspits of today’s industrial livestock operations are sited, built, and operated safely. Local zoning ordinances were the last resort for communities in the absence of reliable state regulation. Such local ordinances were widely accepted and respected until large, intensive livestock operations began multiplying in Michigan. That’s when community ordinances that were protective, for example, of neighboring farmers’ drinking wells came under attack from industry lobbyists for limiting livestock producers’ growth potential.

  2. Local control is essential for responsive and accountable government. Local officials live in the areas they serve, and they know the people — on all sides — who come to them with concerns. They are more responsive to local issues than a state agency, such as the Department of Agriculture, which is by nature closer to industry interests than to citizen concerns.

Take Action
What should activists do next to build on the combined voices of local government, rural residents, and environmentalists in the wake of S.B. 205?

  • Call for House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee chairman Rep. Mike Green to make good on his promise to create a subcommittee that will look into the issues of large livestock operations in Michigan and whether current voluntary rules are adequate.

  • Monitor and communicate with the promised subcommittee. Check with the clerk of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee for meeting and hearing dates by calling 517-373-0015.

  • Write the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5, to let this federal agency know you share their concerns about the lack of reasonable regulation for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in Michigan. Write to Steve Jann, USEPA, 77 W. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL, 60604.

The EPA has directed state governments to develop permitting programs for CAFOs, which have caused serious environmental damage across the nation with massive manure spills and fish kills. The state of Michigan is actively refusing to require livestock producers to meet statutory standards, pushing instead for purely voluntary compliance programs.

The Institute and its partners advocate a mix of voluntary and regulatory measures to simultaneously support responsible producers and prevent irresponsible producers from endangering local residents and the environment.

Michigan Violates Clean Water Act
In order to call greater federal attention to Michigan’s refusal to entertain regulatory elements in livestock industry programs, the Institute, the Sierra Club-Mackinac Chapter, and the Michigan Environmental Council have called on the EPA to revoke Michigan’s authority to enforce the Clean Water Act relative to CAFOs. The state’s voluntary, after-the-fact complaint response system does not satisfy the environmental, property rights, and public health concerns of citizens. It also violates Michigan’s responsibilities under the Clean Water Act by shifting the oversight activities that belong to environmental regulators over to the Department of Agriculture, which is charged with promoting the industry, not protecting the environment or public health.

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