A group of homeowners is suing South Dakota’s Turner County Commission and Sonstegard Foods, the owners of a proposed layer farm, in hopes of keeping the company from building the operation near the city of Parker.
The plaintiffs claim the commission used a fax from the Sonstegard Foods to re-write the county's zoning ordinance without public input. In doing so, the commission made it possible to locate the operation less than three miles from Parker city limits.
Michael Schaffer, who represents three couples opposed to the Sonstegard Foods facility, in the lawsuit asks a judge to declare the ordinance null and void, which he says would nullify any building permit the county issues.
The county's lawyer, Matt Olson, says the commission didn't break any rules. State law was followed in the 2014 zoning ordinance rewrite, and Sonstegard Foods' proposal could be eligible for permits at its current location under the old or new version of the ordinance regardless, OIson said.
At issue is a last-minute tweak to the way animal units are calculated in permits for concentrated animal feeding operations. Turner County's planning and zoning board met several times in 2014 to rework its 2008 rules. The changes were designed to make livestock permitting easier, Olson said.
Under the old ordinance – which was approved by the zoning board and sent to the county commission for approval - each chicken in a liquid manure system counted as .01 animal units. Under that factor, Sonstegard's operation would be equal to a 60,000 beef cattle operation and need to be 5.4 miles from any city.
In Moody County and in the entire state of Minnesota, chickens in a dry manure barn are calculated with a different factor: .003 animal units. Under those calculations, Sonstegard has an 18,000 animal operation. That can be placed less than 2.5 miles from a city.
Peter Sonstegard, vice president for sales of Sonstegard Foods, sent a fax with Moody County's animal unit rules to the county commission after its September 9 first reading of the new zoning ordinance, Argus Leader reported. That fax showed up on the commissioners' table at the second reading of the zoning ordinance in September 2014, the lawsuit claims, and the new rules were added and approved without further public notice of the specific change.
That fax should have been available for public viewing, Schaffer said, and the zoning ordinance should have gone back to the zoning board before the county commission approved it. Because that process wasn't followed, Schaffer said, and because "there are serious questions" about how much access there was to the zoning ordinance for public review, the suit says the zoning ordinance is invalid.
However, the county commission has the authority to make changes to a zoning ordinance between a first and second reading, Olson said, and it can do so by considering any public input. Also, Olson said the zoning ordinance was changed several times during the yearlong revision process, and all of the revisions were available for public review at the planning office in the courthouse, he said.
At a recent meeting with the zoning board, planning commissioners and Olson told the plaintiffs that Sonstegard had no hand in drafting the 2014 ordinance.
The company and county commissioners have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. Sonstegard Foods has applied for a conditional permit, but a hearing on the matter has yet to be scheduled.