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Judge begins trial over poultry farm permit denial

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    VALPARAISO, Nebraska (Lincoln Journal Star) — A judge is set to hear a weeklong trial in an appeal over the Lancaster County Board’s denial of a permit to run a large broiler chicken facility on a farm about a mile from Raymond Central Junior-Senior High School.

“Sunset Poultry’s proposed facility not only meets, but exceeds, the standards for a special-use permit,” attorney Mary Jacobsen, who represents landowners Wayne and Charlene Greve, said in an opening statement Monday.

The business is seeking to build eight barns housing about 380,000 broiler chickens to be raised for the Costco processing plant in Fremont.

In November 2019, the Lancaster County Board voted 3-2 to deny a special permit after hearing opposition from neighbors, including the Raymond Central School District.

Sunset Poultry and the Greves appealed the decision in Lancaster County District Court, setting up a contentious trial that pits neighbor against neighbor.

On Monday, Jacobsen said projects such as these create opportunities for young families, like Josh and Tonya Bussard’s, to stay in rural areas and carry out Nebraska and Lancaster County’s agricultural heritage.

The couple are part-owners who would manage the operation, she said.

“The Bussards care about their community. They have a student in the room at (Raymond) Central School District. They will be working in and around these barns. They drive on the roads, they drink the water and they breathe the air,” Jacobsen said.

They are committed to taking every step to run the barns properly “and to suggest otherwise is an insult,” she said.

Jacobsen said she didn’t doubt the neighbors’ convictions but said their objections were based on fears and speculation about what might happen and could be remediated by conditions being placed on the permit.

On the other side, attorney Brian Jorde, who represents opponents of the permit, said the question isn’t if Sunset Poultry checked the right boxes on the application, but rather “should this facility be built at this specific location.”
He told Lancaster County District Judge Jodi Nelson she would hear testimony about the concerns of the people who live next to the property and of the school district, which has hundreds of children outside on the northern edge of its property closest to where 2.28 million chickens a year would be raised in barns.

Plus, he said, up to 5% of the chickens die each year.

“That’s 114,000 dead and rotting chickens,” Jorde said, which would be left in an open-air bin called a “dead shed.”

He said that alone was enough to rule against the special-use permit. Then, there were water and road issues. Jorde said the barns would require 8 million gallons of water to operate per year. And a gravel road with soft shoulders used by a handful of residents would have to handle 1,100 trucks a year, along with inexperienced, young drivers going to school nearby, Jorde said.

He said his clients aren’t the kind of people who protest concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.

“It’s simply not an intelligent location for this kind of infrastructure,” Jorde said.

Nelson is expected to take the case under advisement at the end of the trial.

The Sunset Poultry application was the second one in the county since Lincoln Premium Poultry, a Costco subsidiary, started recruiting farmers to raise chickens for the plant in 2016.

The other application, which is in the southwest part of the county, is half the size of the Sunset Poultry proposal and was approved in 2018 by a County Board with different membership.

That approval of the plan from landowner Randy Essink was upheld in Lancaster County District Court and by the Nebraska Supreme Court in December, when opponents appealed.

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