After saying no last month, Dodge County approves slimmed-down plan for Costco chicken farm

After saying no last month, Dodge County approves slimmed-down plan for Costco chicken farm
World-Herald News Service

FREMONT, Neb. — The same Dodge County Board that last month rejected what would have been the county’s largest chicken farm on Wednesday approved an eight-barn version of the same proposal unanimously.

What changed? Everything.

Start with the proposal. Instead of seeking a 10-barn proposal to raise nearly 400,000 chickens, landowners Lee and Pamela Camenzind shrunk the footprint of the proposal by a couple of barns.

This addressed some concerns expressed by two of the four Dodge County Board members who voted against the previous proposal.

Then look to Lincoln. Gov. Pete Ricketts and state lawmakers weighed in on the importance of supporting production agriculture. Ricketts in January said Dodge County needed to live up to its “livestock friendly” designation.

He and others in Nebraska’s power structure discussed whether the state needed right-to-farm legislation that puts agricultural expansions that meet a set of state requirements on a fast track to approval, reducing local control.

Finally, the room. The hearing room at the Dodge County Courthouse flipped. It was no longer dominated by neighbors and opponents of the proposal like the five previous public hearings on proposals to do something with the land.

Instead farmers and feeders showed up in force, something not seen when the Camenzinds tried to host the proposed 10 barns or the original site of the massive chicken processing plant that moved to Fremont.

Those two earlier proposals to use the land near Nickerson to join the poultry boom in northeast Nebraska had failed at the local level after neighbors raised concerns about the potential for dust, air and water pollution and more.

This time, things on the chicken farm went the Camenzinds’ way.

The Dodge County Board voted 6-0 in favor of their application for the farm to raise chickens for Costco supplier Lincoln Premium Poultry on 15 of their more than 4,000 acres. The Camezinds, who live near Omaha, wanted to make the farm more fruitful for their son, Case, and daughter-in-law, Joscelyn.

“I don’t know what the difference was,” said Lee Camenzind, smiling. “But it was great to see so many people in agriculture support each other.”

Opponents again stressed concerns about raising so many chickens next door. Among them: risks to air and water quality, property values, poor sightlines and animal odor. Yet their numbers, which ran about 20 to 1 against the proposal in January, seemed to flip Wednesday.

At the end of a nearly three-hour public hearing, Case Camenzind, who will live and farm on the land with Joscelyn and their two children, asked supporters of the proposal to stand.

A group of producers from around northeast Nebraska, including neighboring farmer and Dodge County Planning Commissioner Marlin Brabec, stood in support after many had testified about the importance of agricultural growth.

Andrew Tonnies, one of several neighbors who have attended multiple meetings and hearings against the chicken processing plant and both versions of the chicken farm, said he and others expected to lose this vote. Many were still angry that Ricketts got involved.

“We had hoped to get one or two ‘no’ votes,” Tonnies said. “He (Ricketts) should be focused on state business.”

The governor weighed in on the side of the Camenzinds during a brief visit to Fremont and said he hoped the County Board would revisit its decision.

Now, opponents of the chicken farm say they’ll be monitoring their air and water quality on neighboring land for changes as the chicken farm sprouts to supply Costco with some of the $5 rotisserie chickens it sells.

They say they’ll be ready to report any irregularities to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, among others.

Lincoln Premium Poultry officials, who say they require more environmental protections of their chicken farmers than the State of Nebraska does, have said that shouldn’t be a problem. On Wednesday, they discussed plans for handling and spreading manure, composting dead chickens.

Case Camenzind said his family wants to be good neighbors, and Joscelyn said again during her testimony that she wouldn’t be moving her family to within 1,800 feet of the chicken barns if she had health concerns.

Members of the family embraced after the meeting, laughing and talking about where to grab a bite to eat. Nobody had a grin bigger than Lincoln Premium Chief Operating Officer Walt Shafer. He said it was a big deal to reward a family that had been with Costco from the start.

“To come here and be successful matters,” he said. “Dodge County is our home field, our backyard.”