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Big Sky hearing closes

Case likely headed to court no matter county's ruling

By Matt Christensen - Times-News Writer
Edition Date: 09/26/07

KATHLEEN McKEVITT for the Times-News

KATHELEEN McKEVITT for the Times-News
Alma Hasse, executive director for the group Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, is escorted from a Jerome County courtroom after refusing to stay quiet at a hearing for a controversial feedlot application Wednesday in Jerome County.

JEROME - The fate of the controversial Big Sky Limited Partnership feedlot proposal is now in the hands of Jerome County commissioners.

After two days of often emotional testimony, commissioners must now decide whether to allow Don McFarland to build a controversial 13,000-animal feedlot in the county's eastern end.

The majority of county residents who testified Wednesday said the feedlot will jeopardize their health and threaten the integrity of the nearby Minidoka Internment National Monument.

This week's hearing followed nearly a year of wrangling in Jerome County over confined-animal feeding operations. Concern sparked largely by McFarland's proposal led to a 6-month moratorium on CAFOs. The county's planning and zoning boards are in the process of reworking CAFO ordinances. And public health concerns have led to a joint county-state study on odors and diseases related to dairies.

Those same concerns were the focus of much of the testimony given at the two-day hearings. Residents also complained that the feedlot, to be built less than two miles from a site where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II, would degrade the monument's historical significance.

But most of the back-and-forth at Wednesday's meeting involved procedural matters and interpretation of law. Members of the public scolded commissioners for allowing just four minutes of testimony to neighbors who'd live near the feedlot and refusing to accept audio tapes and other documents into the record.

At one point, Alma Hasse, executive director for environmental group Idaho Concerned Area Residents for the Environment, was led from the courtroom by a bailiff after refusing to yield the floor to commission Chairman Charlie Howell. She was not arrested, but did not return to the courtroom.

Closing arguments for the opposition were led by Jim Stewart, a member of the county's planning board whose father lives adjacent to the proposed feedlot. He said the civil rights of several residents were violated because commissioners declined to postpone the hearing after learning attorney Rich Carlson could not be present to represent them.

Stewart urged commissioners to decline the permit for the feedlot based on a county ordinance that says it's unlawful for property owners to cause undue burden on other property owners. The feedlot, Stewart said, would surely bother neighbors.

He also said the application for the permit was not complete until after the county had passed the moratorium. Stewart said the application was missing a letter from the Valley School District, and that an incomplete application required commissioners to deny the permit.

The attorney representing McFarland, John Lothspeich, said commissioners must grant the permit because the application meets all conditions spelled out in county ordinances. Under the law, he said, commissioners could not consider the emotional testimony.

In a 5th District Court case in Gooding County earlier this year, Judge John K. Butler reversed a Gooding County Commission decision to deny a CAFO permit, because the applicant met the requirements of the ordinance, Butler said. In his ruling, he scolded commissioners for making an "arbitrary and capricious" decision based on emotional testimony - similar to the testimony given in the McFarland case.

But because laws in Jerome County differ from those in Gooding, it's unclear how a judge might rule in this case.

Jerome County commissioners will deliberate the application at 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 9, when they could make a final decision. The meeting is open to the public, but no more testimony will be allowed.

Meanwhile, they'll review the nearly 500-page case file - perhaps in vain. Most close to the case expect the losing party to file suit, and then, a judge would decide.

Matt Christensen may be reached at 735-3243 and at matt.christensen@lee.net