Amid hog farm controversies, petition drive and lawsuit, Utah legislator abandons bill to preempt county restrictions

(Danny Chan La | Tribune file photo) This 2005 file photo shows a hog farm in Milford, Beaver County. A state lawmaker has abandoned, for now, an effort to limit the ability of most county governments in the state to regulate agricultural operations seeking to locate within their jurisdictions.

When a developer came to the Millard County Commission in November with a proposal to build seven farms with as many as 30,800 pigs total in an area 9 miles west of the town of Hinckley, residents in the central Utah community came out in droves to oppose the idea.

During a three-hour public hearing, they raised concerns about water contamination, odors and decreased property values as a result of the project. And the three-member county commission heard them loud and clear, voting unanimously the next week to deny the zoning change Pumbaa Farms would have needed to build.

“We have a right to clean air, clean water, and the ability to continue in the lifestyle that we have without having something intrude upon it,” County Commissioner Dean Draper said of that decision in a recent interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “A CAFO [confined animal feeding operation] in the wrong place can aggravate that.”

But the hard-line stance communities like Millard County have recently taken to keep these farming operations at bay has caused frustration for those seeking to place them — and has prompted at least one lawsuit in Beaver County over a provision of its ordinance that allows a CAFO no closer than 5 miles from any residential area.

When that stipulation was passed in 2018, the most restrictive setback in the United States was a half mile, according to the lawsuit filed in July of that year by Smithfield, which owns and has operated hog feeding facilities in Beaver County for more than 25 years.

Local efforts to limit hog farm operations also led Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, to introduce a bill earlier this month that would limit the ability of most county governments in the state to regulate agricultural operations seeking to locate within their jurisdictions.

“We don’t [want to] end up with a complete patchwork across the state, what you can do in this county and what you can do in that county,” he said in an interview.

SB106, which Sandall said he will pull from consideration in the current legislative session in favor of more study during the interim, would disallow the state’s smaller counties from adopting or enforcing standards on an agricultural operation that are more stringent than a state or federal regulation.

It would also prevent a local government from enacting and enforcing any policies that create a minimum distance greater than 2 miles from a city or town for an agricultural operation.

That would affect not only Beaver County but also Millard County, which by ordinance prescribes a sliding setback that allows these operations as close as 4 miles and as far away as 10. The county revamped its zoning ordinance last summer, after holding a series of public hearings where Draper, the commissioner, estimated around 95% of residents vocalized opposition to factory farms in their area.

While the bill has the support of members of the state Agricultural Advisory Board, who characterized the setback regulations as “crazy” in a discussion last month, Sandall’s legislation has also prompted frustration among rural lawmakers, who see it as an overreach of state power into an arena they think should remain within local control.

“We don’t care for the state Legislature dictating on what happens on the homefront in a local county,” Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson told The Tribune in an interview, though she said she was glad Sandall had hit the pause button on the effort.

Sandall said he’s a proponent of local control. But the former CAFO farmer is also sympathetic to the plight of those in the agricultural industry, imagining what it would be like if he was subject to rules “based on whatever a local county commission may or may not decide arbitrarily because they don’t want hog facilities.”

The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food told The Tribune it was neutral on the proposal.

For now, Sandall said he thinks it’s in the “best interest of the debate” of these issues that they be considered outside of the current legislative session.

He also wants to await the resolution of the lawsuit in Beaver County and of a citizen’s initiative in Millard County seeking a change to the county’s zoning code that would prohibit a CAFO in any zone in the county and require that any applications for a zone change to agriculture industrial would go to a vote of the people and not take effect unless approved by a majority.

Millard County Commissioners approved a six-month moratorium on CAFOs at the end of last year as they await the outcome of that initiative, which is currently in the signature gathering stage.

“If you had these operations being built in the meantime and then you have a total ban, the opportunity for conflict became pretty large,” Draper said of that choice. “So it was a choice of which conflict do you want? The conflict of ‘wait’ or the conflict of ‘here we go?’”

Sandall said he wasn’t sure what effect, if any, his bill would have if that effort were to pass but said he didn’t think a state policy “would at that point trump anything that had been done previously.”

“Depending on whether the lawsuit is concluded or whether the referendum is successful or not, that shouldn’t be the driver of good policy,” he added. “It shouldn’t be a reaction to that. It should be, this is the best policy we should make.”