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A wake-up call for agriculture:Kandiyohi County ag committee seeks discussion of zoning impact on livestock operations

WILLMAR -- Concerned that a recent decision by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners could have a negative effect on animal agriculture if similar action is taken in the future, a committee has begun planning a forum to increase awareness o...

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WILLMAR - Concerned that a recent decision by the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners could have a negative effect on animal agriculture if similar action is taken in the future, a committee has begun planning a forum to increase awareness of the impact zoning issues can have on the ag economy.

"Inaction by this committee is not an option," said Dan Tepfer, chairman of the Agriculture and Renewable Energy Committee.

The committee, which operates under the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said it has the responsibility to do something to inform decision-makers and the public about the need to follow ordinances and policies that affect agriculture in the county.

At a meeting Thursday morning, the group established a subcommittee to plan an event for ag stakeholders, including Kandiyohi County Board members.

The action stems from a 3-2 vote the County Board took Nov. 21 to deny a conditional use permit for a proposed swine operation that would have housed nearly 2,500 hogs on bare land that's zoned for agriculture in northern Kandiyohi County.

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A second vote sent the issue back to the Planning Commission for further review, despite the Planning Commission's Nov. 13 unanimous vote to recommend approval of the permit because it met the county's zoning ordinance.

After that vote, the applicant - who had already made investments in soil borings and other environmental research - withdrew the permit request.

The County Board's vote and the loss of a livestock operation that would have employed about a dozen people got the attention of the committee, which has the mission of supporting agriculture in the county.

In 2004, at the urging of a similar committee, the County Board approved a resolution stating it is a "livestock supportive county."

Committee member Kim Larson questioned if all members of the County Board took that resolution into consideration when they voted.

Larson said there is only one farmer on the County Board now, compared to three farmers when that resolution was approved 13 years ago.

The County Board's vote to reject the permit and return the matter to the Planning Commission came after residents raised concerns about several issues, including potential financial harm if future residential development on land across the road in Stearns County was hindered because a swine facility was close by.

But Larson said if livestock permits are denied because there is the "potential" for a house to be built on adjacent land, farms will be put at an economic disadvantage - it could make it nearly impossible for any livestock operation to be built in the county.

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Duane Hultgren, whose family owns the Colfax Township land where Schwartz Family LLC was planning to run the swine operation, said there is a greater financial impact to the county in lost tax revenues by denying a livestock operation versus construction of a house.

Dan Lippert, a farmer and member of the ag committee, said not supporting livestock operations in the northern part of the county - where farmland values are typically lower - means higher-valued farmland in the southern half of the county will continue to bear a heavier tax burden to support county expenses.

Harlan Madsen, who is the lone farmer on the County Board and voted in favor of the permit, said he is "gravely concerned" about the future of livestock agriculture in the county after what he has seen in the last couple months.

"It's a wake-up call for agriculture," said Madsen, who was invited to attend the ag committee meeting. "We've got to learn something from it."

Madsen said agriculture is the current and future "economic driver" in Kandiyohi County and the industry should have broad support by the public and elected officials.

He agreed there needs to be a "conversation" about agriculture and zoning with stakeholders as long as the process does not involve "finger pointing," which he said could quickly end the conversation.

Related Topics: KANDIYOHI COUNTY
Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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