CAFO group adds security at meetings

Bartholomew County will add security at upcoming committee meetings where concentrated animal feeding operations regulations are being evaluated.

A heated confrontation started by an audience member erupted at the latest meeting, leading to the need for security.

After an emotional clash between observer Tom Heller and CAFO Regulation Study Committee member Leah Beyer, security will be necessary, two county commissioners said.

As Beyer was preparing to leave a committee meeting early Tuesday, the German Township farmer stated she believed it’s not too much to ask neighbors to endure the smell of pig manure for eight hours a week.

That prompted Heller to rise out of his seat and tell Beyer not to leave before she heard what he had to say.

Despite being reminded that the public comment period had not yet begun, Heller moved to the speaker’s seat and began using loud and coarse language to strongly disagree with Beyer.

A moment later, after Heller uttered an obscenity to express his frustration with the lack of progress made by the study committee, another member — Dennis Brooks — gathered up his papers and rose from his chair.

“That’s it. I’m out of here,” said Brooks, a Soil and Water Conservation District board member, before walking out of the meeting with Beyer.

Joining Brooks in the walkout was local Farm Bureau president and committee member Scott Bonnell.

Group member and county commissioner Rick Flohr said he immediately became concerned after watching Heller follow Beyer out into the hallway.

After a shouting match in the hallway, Flohr went into the hall to check on Beyer’s welfare after hearing someone shout “Back off, dude!” followed by a thump, Flohr said.

While he did not see what happened, Flohr said, the accounts he gathered from Beyer, Bonnell and Brooks were consistent.

Although Heller did not touch Beyer, Brooks said Heller was closely invading her personal space near the fourth-floor elevator of the county government building, Flohr said.

That prompted Brooks to get between the two, order Heller to back away and push him back into a wall, Flohr said.

“I was shaken up for about two days that someone would get so hostile over a disagreement regarding one setback requirement,” Beyer said Friday. “I’m still trying to evaluate what could have triggered such behavior.”

The day after the meeting, Flohr issued a statement:

“When we have members of the public so emotionally charged that they get up out of their seat, interrupting the proceedings, cursing and acting in an aggressive and threatening manner while singling out a particular member of a committee — we are no longer in an area that is useful to what we set out to accomplish.”

The confrontation “clearly defines how much division and separation exists on this matter among all residents,” commissioner chairman Larry Kleinhenz said. “Honestly, I think it helps us as commissioners because incidents like this lets the public know how emotionally charged this issue is.”

Following the meeting, Kleinhenz and Flohr discussed the incident, deciding not to pursue any action against Heller. However, they did ask Heller not to attend any more committee meetings, Flohr said.

A one-year moratorium on creating new or expanding existing CAFOs that was enacted to allow the committee to do its work will expire Aug. 25.

But Tuesday’s clash wasn’t the only evidence that, as Flohr phrased it, “things are deteriorating” in regard to morale and cooperation among the 13 study committee members.

Before the confrontation, all committee members had agreed they are prepared to wrap up their work, even though they have not come up with any proposed changes to current CAFO regulations.

Committee members said a consensus among those wanting strict setback requirements for CAFOs and those wanting less restrictive regulations is not possible.

The committee is scheduled to have three meetings this week — on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday — and Flohr said he has not given up hope that more recommendations may come forth.

Group moderator Kris Medic said almost all committee members want stronger setback requirements regarding CAFOs than those currently required by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

But after meeting for a year, the two sides still disagree on exactly where to draw the lines, Medic said.

Audience member Dennis Tibbetts told the group Tuesday that what was intended to be a study committee’s efforts to make recommendations has instead become a political battle.

“Our current ordinance needed to be revisited and improved, and frankly, I think the farming community expects some change,” Kleinhenz said.

Committee members who support less-restrictive requirements, including Flohr, are not rooting for somebody to build a CAFO, Flohr said.

“I really don’t want to see any more CAFOs in the county, but I also don’t want to make it impossible for somebody to have them,” he said.

Likewise, those who advocate tougher CAFO restrictions should not be considered anti-farm, committee member Mike Percy said.

However, the Hartsville resident and retired mechanical engineer also cited two Midwest father-son duos –- one in Iowa and the other in Wisconsin — who died from the noxious fumes of a manure pit within a three-week period last month.

Those deaths illustrate how dangerous hog manure, which contains concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide and methane, can be to human health, Percy said.

In terms of financial impact, Percy said, he’s been told by real estate experts that a person living next to a CAFO can expect to see their property values drop by 30 percent.

What has been consistent since the committee was formed late last summer is that the commissioners have requested recommendations that balance environmental, health and property value concerns with those of the agriculture sector, Kleinhenz said.

“We recognize the farmer has a right to make a living, and we need the food,” said Kleinhenz, a residential developer and former hog farmer.

He also brought up a point made Tuesday by Brooks that those who are most concerned about health, environment and property values have not offered compromises regarding setback demands over the past five months. Those who refuse to compromise may discover they have done more harm than good for their cause, he said.

“If the committee gave us a unanimous compromise, the commissioners would be more prone to support it,” Kleinhenz said. “But if we’re forced to make the rules because there’s no compromise, it’s probably going to be less restrictive.”

The commissioners chairman also said that if setbacks are too restrictive, it could have an effect on livestock production similar to urban sprawl.

That means a livestock producer could put up several livestock barns on different parcels that collectively hold thousands of animals, and nobody would be able to do anything about it, Kleinhenz said.

“By doing that, he’ll be stinking up the whole township because we won’t let him have the one large barn he wanted in the first place,” Kleinhenz said.

If enough counties enact too many restrictions against CAFOs, large-scale production would become limited to fewer areas, causing nationwide meat prices to rise and possibly become unaffordable for many families, he said.

What's next?

The following is the tentative finish-out schedule for the Bartholomew County CAFO Regulation Study Committee.

  • Monday: Initial draft of recommendations preparation, 4 p.m. in the fourth floor county council chambers at the Bartholomew County Government Office building, Third and Franklin streets.
  • Wednesday: Committee returns input on draft recommendation, 4 p.m. in the county council chambers. 
  • Thursday: Committee to determine whether to drop, accept or recommend items for further study, 4 p.m. in the county council chambers. 
  • Aug. 25: Moratorium on CAFO applications expires. 

Dates in September still to be determined:

  • Hold open house for public consideration of and input on recommendations.
  • Consideration of how public input will affect recommendations.
  • Recommendations sent to county plan commission for research and to write specific proposed codes.
  • Review how recommendations have been applied, and how changes are going from a variety of perspectives.

September or October: Submit recommendations for the Oct. 14 meeting of the Bartholomew County Plan Commission.  Recommendations will then go to the county commissioners.    

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.