Ballot initiative could ban new hog farms in Millard County

(Danny Chan La | Tribune file photo) A pig farm in Milford, Beaver County, in 2005.

Residents in one of Utah’s least populated counties are gearing up for a vote this November on a ballot initiative that has the potential to enact sweeping changes to the county’s zoning code and could have decadeslong implications for future growth.

If approved, the initiative in Millard County would outlaw new industrial hog farms across the county and would require any effort to site one to go on the ballot for a vote — a win for residents who have raised concerns about the water contamination, odors and decreased property values that often accompany these kinds of projects.

“The impact and effect from this is we get to maintain our history and heritage and land use if it passes,” said Steve Maxfield, chair of a political issues committee that was formed to support the initiative. “If it doesn’t, we’ve been told we’re going to be overwhelmed by these swine CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and if that comes, there’s going to be a lot of people that have been here [for five generations] that will end up leaving.”

On the other side of the issue are local farmers and the international corporations that run swine operations, which see passage of Proposition 6 as an assault on private property rights.

“Our position on that whole thing is that it’s absolutely crazy,” Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “This proposition is scary to us, scary to production agriculture and family farms all across the state.”

Gibson said he’s concerned that voter approval of the prohibition on large-scale hog operations could have long-lasting impacts on farmers and that Millard County could set a precedent that, replicated throughout the state, would leave new agricultural operations with few places to turn.

While the initiative only targets swine farms, he worries that dairy farms or feedlots could be next. And though it wouldn’t apply to hog operations already in Millard County, Gibson said passage of the proposition could prevent existing farmers from expanding or changing their business in the future.

“It’s a taking of private property rights,” he said of the initiative. “It’s one of the most core values and rights that we as Americans have and then to have neighbors say, ‘You know what, I don’t like that smell or I don’t like those flies.’ ... Man, it just concerns the heck out of us.”

Maxfield says he recognizes the importance of private property rights but argues they don’t extend so far as to harm other people’s enjoyment and use of their property, as he says a hog farm operation would.

Millard County Attorney Patrick Finlinson said in a December 2019 letter on the local initiative that it will prohibit certain uses of property and will impact private property rights.

“Millard County may have to defend against constitutional takings claims related to the proposed law," he wrote. "Under current jurisprudence, however, I do not foresee any such claims being successful. It is my opinion that the proposed law will not expose Millard County to significant legal liability.”

If public comment during a series of recent meetings is any indication, the initiative has a good chance among voters, who will begin receiving their ballots in the next few weeks.

When a developer came to the Millard County Commission late last year with a proposal to build seven farms with as many as 30,800 pigs near the town of Hinckley, residents came out in droves to oppose the idea during a three-hour public hearing.

And when the county revamped its zoning ordinance last summer to prescribe a sliding setback that prohibits hog farm operations from moving too close to a city or town, County Commissioner Dean Draper estimated around 95% of residents vocalized opposition to factory farms in their area.

Maxfield said signature collectors for the ballot initiative cut off their efforts early because of COVID-19 but still gathered more than the requisite amount.

“We had such strong support, we could have got 3,000,” he said, noting that he’s confident the “support is there” to pass the proposition in November.

Gibson, on the other hand, said he feels sure that the initiative will fail when the “silent majority” votes.

“Since agriculture’s such a big part of the economy in Millard County, [I think] Millard County voters will not vote to pass something like this — and I hope and pray that I’m right,” he said.

As the election draws nearer, legislative officials have already indicated their intention to change state rules around the concentrated animal feeding operations, in lieu of what Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, called a “lack of guidance from the state” on the criteria that should be used in siting them.

“The discussion has largely been driven at the county or city level based on ‘not in my backyard’ scenarios where we may or may not trust in any criteria or objective criteria but we would just lean to what the wind of anyone in the community might come up and be complaining about,” he said during a recent meeting of the Legislature’s Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.

Sandall had previously introduced a bill in this year’s legislative session that would have limited the ability of the state’s smaller counties to regulate agricultural operations seeking to locate within their jurisdictions.

But the former CAFO farmer said his objective now is to create legislation establishing objective criteria across the state to help county commissioners or city planners determine when to permit these agricultural operations.

If the initiative in Millard County passes, Maxfield said residents are expecting to gear up next for a fight with the Legislature, which he notes has not been shy about overturning the will of the people in the past.

But in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, Sandall said he doesn’t expect that his bill, which is still being drafted, would “supersede anything that a county has already done or decided.”

“That issue [in Millard County] may have driven the need for some kind of a guidance or some kind of structure behind siting these CAFOs,” he said. “But we did take a complete step backwards from where the [SB]106 bill was last year, and we’re looking at it as not just one segment but we’re looking at it as an overall approach to agriculture.”

Lincoln Shurtz, with the Utah Association of Counties, told lawmakers at the National Resources meeting that maintaining local control is the most important principle for his group.

But as these agricultural issues become “more prevalent” throughout the state, he said the organization recognizes the value in clearer statewide standards.

“We do think some guidance from the state on things that should be considered such as prevailing winds, watershed protection, the surrounding area uses, compatibility with surrounding area uses, access to infrastructure, all of those sorts of things need to be considered and can certainly be done so at the local level,” he said. “We’re very open to the conversation of determining what those state standards should be.”

In the meantime, both the organizers behind the initiative in Millard County and those opposed to it say they plan to ramp up their efforts over the next few weeks to sway voters.

There’s too much at stake for either side to sit back and let the votes fall where they may.