A major reason factory farming hasn’t run completely roughshod over the Minnesota countryside can be summed up in two words: “local control.” That’s why corporate interests aren’t wasting any time this legislative session trying to make this critical tool go away. For example, the Senate Committee on Local Government and Elections was planning on taking up Senate File 270 as early as Monday, Feb. 21. Weather caused the hearing to be postponed, and it’s not clear when, if ever, the bill will be brought up in that committee again. This provides a prime opportunity for people concerned about preserving local control to call their lawmakers and let them know this legislation should be dead on arrival.
Senate File 270 is the Senate counterpart to House File 389. These bills would weaken the power of local governments to enact interim ordinances. Interim ordinances allow townships and counties to quickly put a temporary freeze on major development. This power is essential when the community is caught off-guard by unanticipated proposals, especially those from outside corporate interests and outside investors, such as big box stores like Wal-Mart or a large-scale factory farm. It’s a particularly critical tool when state agencies are unable or unwilling to stand up for the rights of citizens when major developments are proposed.
An interim ordinance maintains the status quo and gives the community breathing room to review or create appropriate zoning ordinances. When we’re talking about developments that come with multi-million gallon manure lagoons or other elements that could impact a community for decades to come, a little time to consider the consequences isn’t too much to ask, is it?
Apparently it is, when your goal is to exploit resources in a rural community without checking in with the people who live there first.
“What do the proposers of these big livestock operations want the countryside to look like in the future?” Alan Perish, a Todd County farmer who has been a Hartford Township officer for 24 years, said to me earlier this week. “What do they want this to look like in the next generation?”
The point Perish makes is an important one: particularly when a resource-intensive project is fueled by outside investors, the future is considered in terms of the next quarterly earnings report. Local residents must consider the future in terms of decades and generations. That’s why tools such as the interim ordinance are so important in helping people determine what that future might look like. That’s why local control matters.
Corporate interests have attacked local democracy and the tools it relies upon repeatedly over the years. However, family farmers, township officials and groups like LSP have beaten them back. Until now, perhaps the most strident attack on local control was back in 2004, when then-Governor Tim Pawlenty took it on through his “Livestock Advisory Task Force.” In response, over 5,000 Minnesotans flooded his office with postcards saying local control was critical to maintaining a good quality of life in rural communities. Even the New York Times editorial board called the Task Force’s proposal to weaken local control, “a blueprint for the destruction of family farming in Minnesota.”
And as LSP’s fact sheet on local control documents, over the years the courts have repeatedly backed up local citizens’ right to determine what kind and size of development best fits their community.
Here are some specifics on why this most recent legislation is bad news:
• Merely applying for a permit would exempt a proposed development from any future interim ordinance. But all too often neighbors do not get any information about a project until after the permit has been applied for. When that happens, an interim ordinance may be needed to freeze the status quo and create time to assess the situation. If this bill passes, a community will have very limited rights when it is caught off-guard.
• The bills would require a two-thirds vote (a super majority) to enact an interim ordinance. Currently, an interim ordinance can be enacted by a simple majority — that’s how democratic rights should work. There is no reason to make adopting an interim ordinance so difficult.
• The bills slow the process for enacting an interim ordinance by mandating public notice before an interim ordinance can be put in place. In many cases, local units of government — particularly townships — do not get complete information on a proposed development until shortly before approval. In those cases, there can be legitimate concerns that the local government needs to address right away. The very nature of an interim ordinance is to address unanticipated situations, so there are times when it must be enacted quickly as an emergency measure.
Let’s reiterate something: interim ordinances are not a ban on development, just a temporary hold. But when you’re trying to shove an unpopular project down the throats of local residents, the faster things move along, the better.
Back in 2003, a New Jersey investor was looking to put his 2,100-head dairy operation on greased rails in Dodge County’s Ashland Township. This facility, which at the time would have been the biggest of its kind in Minnesota, had some powerful backers, including Cargill, Monsanto and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
But the people who were going to have to farm and live in the shadow of such a facility had other ideas. Over 140 residents of the township signed a petition asking the supervisors to adopt a one-year interim ordinance on the building of, for example, livestock developments over 900 animal units (that’s equivalent to 643 mature dairy cows or 3,000 market hogs) to protect the citizens from the negative impacts of factory farms. Some of these impacts, which have been extensively documented in other areas, include damage to roads, lowered property values and environmental problems, as well as threats to human health, safety and general quality of life. The township supervisors complied with the residents’ wishes, and eventually the community was able to put in place planning and zoning that helped it better determine its future.
In this particular case, mega-livestock operations turned out not to be part of that future.
That local control would be attacked yet again this session is disappointing, but perhaps it’s no surprise. This is part of an overall strategy to do the bidding of corporate interests at the expense of average citizens. SF 270 and HF 389 make nice companions to the proposed legislation that would, as we noted in this blog a few weeks ago, put environmental review on a fast track.
If you value local democracy, you need to call your Representatives and Senators now (remember, speed is the theme of the day at the capitol these days). Let our elected state leaders know that Minnesotans value strong local democracy and that weakening township and community rights is wrong. For details on how to get that message across, click here.