The Dodge County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday approved a conditional use permit for an eight-barn poultry operation near Nickerson that will produce chicken for Lincoln Premium Poultry and the Costco chicken plant being built here in Fremont.
The vote was unanimous, with one member — Dan Weddle — absent on Wednesday.
The property owners, Lee and Pamela Camenzind, brought forward the application on behalf of their son Case Camenzind and his wife Joscelyn, who will operate the barns. The site will sit on a 15-acre parcel of land just west of Nickerson, boxed off by County Road O and U.S. Highway 77.
The facility is expected to accommodate 380,000 chickens.
The approval comes after the board voted down the Camenzinds’ first proposal for a larger 10-barn, 475,000-chicken operation at the same site back in January. Board members at the time called for a reduced barn count and cited resident concerns about how trucks coming and going from the facility could affect traffic safety in the area.
The project has attracted considerable attention from both opponents and proponents — in Dodge County and beyond. Residents concerned about the project have attended public hearings by the dozen to testify, citing concerns about air and water quality, odor and traffic safety. Proponents, meanwhile, have pointed to the potential economic impact of the Costco project and argued that Costco and Lincoln Premium Poultry have gone above and beyond the requirements for the operation.
January’s vote also caught the attention of Gov. Pete Ricketts, who voiced support for the project during a visit to Fremont last month. He noted that Dodge County “has to live up to” its designation as a “livestock friendly county.”
Ricketts’ input appeared to weigh heavily during Wednesday’s meeting, with some opponents crying foul over the governor’s commentary. Some expressed concern that it could pave the way for more state oversight in decisions on livestock operation siting.
“With all due respect to the governor, he doesn’t live in Dodge County, and he didn’t elect you,” North Bend resident Andrew Tonnies told the board on Wednesday. “We live here, and we elected you and we appreciate your discretion.”
Like the last board meeting and the two prior County Planning Commission meetings regarding the project, Wednesday’s board meeting saw hours of public testimony from both sides of the issue.
But while the prior meetings appeared to feature more testimony against the proposal, supporters of the project appeared to outnumber opponents at Wednesday’s meeting — at least by the time public testimony concluded, when Case Camenzind asked all of his supporters in the packed meeting room to stand.
Fremont area leaders came out to support the project, including Tara Lea of the Fremont Area Chamber of Commerce, Garry Clark of the Greater Fremont Development Council and Chair of the Dodge County Planning Commission Marlon Brabec.
They were joined by other producers — including another Costco grower from Washington County — as well as former state Senator David Schnoor and ag industry promoters like Steve Martin of the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska.
Those opposed to the project included Nickerson resident Randy Ruppert, whose group Nebraska Communities United has long opposed the Costco project. He argued that Lincoln Premium Poultry could be doing more to ensure that waste from its growers’ barns doesn’t end up in area waterways — like planting cover crops or putting buffer strips around waterways.
Others pointed to states like Iowa or North Carolina, which reports say have environmental issues related to concentrated animal feeding operations. Fremont resident Evelyn McKnight expressed concern that the project could yield increased ammonia emissions, which could be harmful to air quality in the area and to members of her family who have respiratory issues.
“Ammonia has a foul acrid smell that will permeate our air for miles,” McKnight argued. “My concerns about air quality center around the consequences for the health and wellbeing of the people of Dodge County.”
Jessica Kolterman of Lincoln Premium Poultry argued that all of Lincoln Premium Poultry’s barns feature “Poultry Litter Treatment,” an additive that aims to control ammonia output.
Case and Joscelyn Camenzind, meanwhile, introduced themselves as fifth-generation farmers who saw the project as a way to get back into agriculture full-time and give their kids an opportunity to stay back on the farm.
Case argued that the manure produced at the site would be used to cultivate his land and that appropriately applied chicken litter can play a pivotal role in “creating more productive soils.” Joscelyn noted that the family would be living within 1,800 feet of the barns.
“We would not be subjecting our children or ourselves or the community to living conditions that spread disease or pose a general health hazard,” she said. “We want to live here, too.”
Lincoln Premium Poultry also requires all of its growers to follow a nutrient management plan, which is enforced by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, despite the fact they are not required to, officials said. Opponents have questioned if those regulations would be adequate.
Overall, supporters argued that the Camenzinds proposal met all of the regulations put forth by Dodge County — it met all setback requirements and scored a 114 on the Livestock Siting Assessment Matrix, which the county uses to evaluate livestock operation proposals. The passing score is 75.
When the Dodge County Planning Commission approved the original 10-barn proposal, they included a condition that the Camenzinds move the driveway into the facility from County Road O to the east or south side, in order to address resident concerns about traffic safety along that stretch of road and area highways.
But on Wednesday Dodge County Highway Superintendent Scott Huppert presented the results of a study looking at traffic patterns in the area. Those results measured more trucks on county road P to the south than on county road O during a 76-hour period, and Joscelyn Camenzind noted that the board agreed County Road O would be a better option for the driveway.
“We’ve gone out of our way to do that, and we’ve shown it very clear the position and location of this in regards to roads will definitely work,” said Supervisor Lon Strand, who supported the first version of the project and who requested that Huppert perform the traffic study. “We’ve had a lot of livestock operations all over Dodge County, we’ve dealt with that over the years and never had another problem.”
Before making a motion for approval, Strand argued that the Camenzinds’ proposal fit into Dodge County’s focus on promoting agriculture.
“I don’t care if it’s hogs, cattle, chicken, turkey, corn, soybean,” he said. “This is not a chicken thing. This is an ag thing in Dodge County. It happens to be a chicken thing this time. We’ve had beef operations come before us, we’ve never had this pushback on this. This is not about chickens. This is about agriculture, and Dodge County is about agriculture.”
Strand also noted that the project, which amounts to a $4 million investment, adds a considerable amount to the county’s tax revenue — “You cannot pull this out of the equation when you make a decision,” he said.