Tuesday night, under the vaulting rooftop, fluorescent lighting and downward drafts of air conditioning inside the Christensen Field Multi-Purpose Building in Fremont, local government officials and several hundred area residents gather on the second consecutive night to engage in a tense public discussion dividing the community.
In a proposal that projects the creation of 1,100 new jobs, an additional $63 million dollar increase in tax base, a $180 million capital investment in the region as well as an annual operational output of $1.2 billion during full operation, Costco Wholesale hopes to build a fully integrated, state of the art chicken processing plant in a large acreage located south of the City of Fremont.
The issues before Fremont City Council on Tuesday involved the annexation, zoning changes and conditional agreements regarding the land upon which the processing operation would be located.
Currently, the land in question –owned by Hills Farm, Inc. – exists in the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Fremont. In order to acquire the benefits related to annexation, such as utilities and the use of tax incremental financing for funding certain aspects of the project, Costco submitted a petition for annexation of the 417 acres of Hills Farm land into the corporate boundaries of Fremont. That petition represented one of three ordinances under official consideration and public discussion Tuesday night.
“There is probably no better place for a project of this type to go,” said Jack S. Frank vice president of real estate for Costco.
If approved, the framework would be laid for Costco to commence with its plans.
Frank discussed several components of that plan. He outlined the dimensions of the feed mill, hatchery and processing facility. Those structures would be owned by Costco but operated by Lincoln Premium Poultry. The company would work with the local community to purchase feed and other necessities.
Frank stated that among the grower community interest showed “an overwhelming positive response.” He went on to detail a 5.5 percent to 7 percent return on investment for the growers after loans payments while under a 15 year contract with Costco. Additionally the contract represents a “progressive remediation process,” where growers could not be terminated without cause or due process.
“We do this with a code of ethics in mind,” said Frank. “Costco’s reputation speaks for itself. We’re a do-the-right-thing company.”
Troy Anderson, director of planning for Fremont, explained the meetings served as an opportunity for the public to offer city officials their general opinion about the project and specific information or documents related to its impacts – economic, environmental or community impacts. According to Anderson, open public discussion represents an informational gathering session for city officials; it is not a question and answer session.
“(The public discussion) allows the general public to share their thoughts and feelings,” Anderson said.
He explained it provides a means for the members of the community to inform city officials about what needs to be known to make the most educated decision on resolutions and ordinances under consideration.
In the moments prior to the meeting, Mayor Scott Getzschman discussed his goals and vision for the public discussion phase of Costco’s proposal. He looked forward to sharing the facts, starting the public dialog and taking the process to fruition
“I’m excited to have the public process get started,” Mayor Scott Getzschman added.
Not everyone present showed the same enthusiasm.
Jeff Karls, Fremont resident approached the council with a petition carrying 1052 signatures in support of implementing more detailed, scientific and transparent impact studies.
“This is not a decision of a few but a decision of the people who will live with it (the facility),” Karls stated, “The things that really matter seemed to be getting steamrolled over.”
Officials from state agricultural and environmental agencies as well as two experts in the field of poultry science were on hand to address inquiries and concerns from the Fremont City Council and area residents. Those experts were John R. Glisson, vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association and Michael Lacy, professor of poultry science at the Department of Poultry for the University of Georgia.
Glisson tried to alleviate concerns regarding avian flu. He explained it’s a virus native to wild waterfowl not birds of the poultry industry. For that reason, chickens and turkeys have no natural immunity against the virus. However, Glisson said the industry works diligently to keep poultry protected. This is accomplished by keeping the birds inside with strict biocontainment measures. He further expanded that fears of the disease in humans has been fueled more by sensationalized news.
“This country leads the world in avian influenza control,” Glisson stated. “Every flock of chickens is tested before they go to market … Nebraska is already part of this system.”
Lacy addressed worries over the environmental impact of broiler litter.
“Poultry litter is an extremely valuable, effective and important organic fertilizer,” Lacy said, adding that all farmers applying it to their fields are required to follow a comprehensive nutrient plan that ensures proper storage and application and, if used responsibly, it poses very little environmental risk.
In addition to the ordinances under consideration, three resolutions regarding conditional annexation agreements for the Hills Farm as well as for another piece of land known as the Roadway Subdivision, also fell under consideration by City Council and were all approved unanimously.
Those conditional agreements were between the City of Fremont, Costco and local property owners of the said acreages; and all are conditioned upon the closing of the purchase of the Hills Farm property by Costco. In a sense, Costco’s purchase of the land serves as one of the initial dominos that will set in motion the progression of the project.
Gregory Barton of Barton Law firm out of Lincoln addressed the Council on behalf of Nebraska Communities United, a group that continues to show resolute opposition to Costco.
“The biggest concern is the lack of detail regarding the proposed Costco project,” Barton said, “I can’t help but notice that all the petitions and agreement for annexation … are all quote, unquote, conditional.”
At Tuesday’s meeting City Council held the first (of three) readings on the four ordinances regarding annexation of the Hills Farm and Roadway Subdivision property and the corresponding zoning changes. The ordinances will not be acted on until after each receives three reading by the council.
The meeting was the second in a series of several special and regular city meetings relating to Costco’s proposal. The next meeting will be June 28 at 4:30 p.m. a planning commission meeting addressing the recommendation of a blight and substandard declaration of the area