DesMoines Register: Livestock confinements need local control

The Register’s Editorial: Livestock confinements need local control

The Register’s Editorial 11:08 p.m. CST February 15, 2015

(Photo: DesMoines)

Sioux County in northwest Iowa has 1.2 million hogs. Nearby Dickinson County is home to 43,000 hogs.

That is not the only difference between the two counties. While Sioux County is apparently comfortable with having the equivalent of 35 hogs for every resident of the county, there is mounting concern in Dickinson County about the growing numbers of livestock confinement operations in one of the state’s premier tourism destinations. Local leaders have even called for a moratorium on construction of new livestock confinements.

Dickinson County is blessed with precious assets in the form of the Iowa Great Lakes that attract tourists and some of the most expensive lakeside real estate in the state. So it is no surprise that residents are worried about the potential for the pristine lake waters to be polluted with hog manure and the air to be fouled by livestock odors.

While some characterize this as a battle of tourism vs. agriculture, it is actually a question of whether Iowans should have more voice in decisions that affect their communities and local economies.

We believe they should.

Whereas Dickinson County and its communities have the power over the location of everything from roads and restaurants to factories, local elected city and county officials — and by extension the citizens they represent — have no say over livestock confinements. That is because the Iowa General Assembly and the Iowa courts have explicitly exempted agriculture from local health, environmental or nuisance regulations.

Instead, the location of large livestock confinement operations is regulated by state law through a process that sets uniform statewide standards for building these facilities apart from homes, schools, recreational areas and drinking-water sources. With certain exceptions, these regulations are applied in the same way in every county in Iowa, whether it’s in Sioux County or in Dickinson County. While local officials have the opportunity to give their opinions, the state has the ultimate authority to approve or deny a proposed livestock confinement siting.

Ironically, Iowa agriculture leaders who otherwise object to “one size fits all” federal regulation of farming defend statewide livestock confinement rules because in this case they work to their benefit.

There is an argument to be made for minimum statewide standards for the location of large livestock confinement facilities. Those standards should at the very least uniformly protect water quality, public health and quality of life for residents, schoolchildren and visitors to public parks and lakes. But if local elected officials wish to go above and beyond those minimum standards, they should have that power.

Thus, if the people of Sioux County are satisfied with the state’s minimum standards, they are free to live with them. But if Dickinson County’s elected officials want greater separation between livestock operations and Iowa’s Great Lakes, they should have the authority to require it. Some farmers would not be able to raise livestock in some places in that county, but they would be no more harmed than any other businesses that are prevented by the county’s zoning code from building whatever they please, wherever they please.

Iowans should appreciate the economic power of this state’s crop and livestock farmers. But agricultural interests should likewise appreciate the reality that the livestock industry is bound to be constrained by regulations designed to protect the water, air and the quality of life in Iowa. Local communities should have more say in the decisions on how those constraints are applied.