Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Suit Pits Historic Town vs. Big Pig Farms

MARCH 3, 2010

In Missouri, Where Push Began for Local Control Over Siting, Attorney General Sides Against Tiny Arrow Rock

By LAUREN ETTER, Wall Street Journal

ARROW ROCK, Mo.—This tiny historic town has emerged as a battleground over rules that agricultural groups say have hog-tied big pig farms.

In 2007, residents of the town of 79 filed a lawsuit to stop a farmer who wanted to build a farm with 4,800 pigs on the outskirts of town.

They not only won the case but a ruling that appeared to keep any future applicants at least two miles away from town. "We were elated," said Julie Fisher, a landowner in Arrow Rock.

Then, last year, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster appealed the decision in state court, vowing to roll back a thicket of local obstacles to big farms that largely began in "The Show Me State" and rippled across the Farm Belt in recent years.

"In the eyes of the agricultural community, this is starting to spin out of control," said Mr. Koster, a former state senator whose pending appeal has the backing of the Missouri Farm Bureau, one of the biggest farm groups in the state.

As livestock operations have grown more industrialized, residents across rural America have banded together to try to keep them out. They say the bigger farms are wreaking havoc on their communities, polluting waterways with manure that can kill fish and sicken people. A popular tool has been county-level "local control" ordinances that govern where a large farm can locate.

While many states have retained authority over the siting of livestock farms, Missouri has a staunch local-control movement that took root in the early 1990s as corporate-controlled hog processors moved in. In 1999, the Missouri Court of Appeals held that a county can implement an ordinance governing livestock farms, including where they are located, if it is rooted in concerns over public health. Today, more than a dozen of Missouri's 114 counties have the ordinances.

In Arrow Rock, residents used another means after learning that a big hog farmer had won a permit. In late 2007, the village of Arrow Rock and others sued the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which had granted the permit. Residents said the permit conflicted with the state's constitutional duty to protect historic sites.

Arrow Rock was designated a national historic landmark in the 1960s for its role in westward expansion and its painstakingly preserved 19th century buildings. Today, it attracts 150,000 visitors a year to a Main Street that boasts a quaint boardwalk and the Arrow Rock Tavern, which opened its doors in 1834.

In Arrow Rock, tourism and large-scale farming "are conflicting interests," said Kathy Borgman, executive director of nonprofit Friends of Arrow Rock.

Judge Patricia S. Joyce of the Circuit Court of Cole County said the state department couldn't issue a permit to the hog farmer, Dennis Gessling, or any similar operation within two miles of Arrow Rock, because the "odors and volatile and dangerous airborne pollutants" would "decimate" the historic area.

Even though the original applicant decided to locate his farm elsewhere, Mr. Koster appealed. He said he was worried that if the ruling stood, Missouri's more than 300 circuit and associate circuit judges could begin ruling separately on the matter, adding another layer of complexity to county health ordinances. Mr. Koster added that while he was in favor of protecting historic parks, he believed the state needed a "unified regulatory structure so that we don't have 500 different zoning units over agriculture."

Oral arguments will be heard later this month in the Western District Court of Appeals in Kansas City.

In recent years, the Missouri Legislature has tried at least four times to roll back the county rules, citing conflicting state statutes that prevent counties from zoning animal agriculture. Mr. Koster, a former Republican state senator who is now a Democrat, sponsored one such bill in 2007.

Backers of local control view the attorney general's appeal as a power grab. An editorial in The Kansas City Star said Mr. Koster's effort could "kill local control" and is the "wrong approach."

Missouri Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke in Arrow Rock in 2007 against the proposed "factory farm," declined to comment through a spokesman, citing the litigation.

Farm lobbies in other states recently have defeated budding local control movements, including a case that went to the state Supreme Court in Iowa and an appeals court in Ohio.

"We will do everything we can in our power to preserve our exemption from local control," says Larry Gearhardt, director of local affairs at the Ohio Farm Bureau. "It's not a pretty fight."

Write to Lauren Etter at

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