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Venue for hog farm hearing larger, now closer to site

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A new location has been set for a zoning hearing on a proposal that could result in Bartholomew County’s largest hog operation.

Bartholomew County Board of Zoning Appeals will consider the proposal from William Gelfius at 6 p.m. Monday at The Ridge church, 2800 N. Bonnell Road. The church is in Clifty Township just east of the Columbus city limits.

Gelfius is requesting a zoning exception that would allow up to 8,800 hogs in a confined feeding operation near Anderson Falls Park.

The decision to move the meeting was made after 135 people crammed into the county council chambers Jan. 27 during the first Gelfius public hearing. With standing room only inside, about 30 people stood outside the chambers, with many saying they had difficulty hearing the proceedings.

The church is both a much larger venue for the public meeting and closer to where the hog operation is planned.

Public speaking time expanded

The agenda says Monday’s hearing will be open for public comment. Rather than the strictly enforced three-minute time limit that was used during January’s hearing, people attending Monday’s hearing will have five minutes to speak. Also unlike January’s hearing, residents who don’t sign up in advance but wish to address the board will be allowed to comment.

Opponents of the proposal were upset when zoning board chairman DeWayne Hines made an immediate motion to approve Gelfius’ request following the January hearing, said Jim Murray, who said he is against the Gelfius proposal.

Hines had assured the crowd the board would weigh and consider all evidence presented, Murray said.

“There didn’t seem to be a great amount of soul-searching going on with that board that night,” Murray said.

With lack of a second to Hines’ motion, however, the matter was tabled for a month.

6 of 26 speakers favored plan

Among the 26 speakers who addressed the board in January, only six supported Gelfius’ proposal. From manure stench to increased truck traffic, some neighbors gave a variety of reasons why a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) would diminish their quality of life.

The Gelfius property, 20565 E. County Road 200N, is along the Bartholomew-Decatur County line about 1.5 miles northwest of Waynesburg in Clifty Township.

Another argument for the Gelfius proposal may be brought up Monday, Murray said.

Earlier this month, the Indiana House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee approved Senate Bill 186. That measure states: “Indiana code shall be construed to protect the rights of farmers to choose among all generally accepted livestock production practices, including the use of ever-changing technology.”

The Hoosier Environmental Council claims the Senate bill, along with House Bill 1200, are designed to provide legal protection to large-scale hog operations similar to the Gelfius proposal. The council contends that factory farms will pollute air and water, contribute to contaminated drinking water and algae blooms, reduce property values and contribute to food-borne illnesses.

Conflict of interest?

Those protesting the Gelfius proposal have noted that Senate Bill 186 and House Bill 1200 have been supported by the Indiana Farm Bureau, the parent organization for a local Farm Bureau branch where Hines has served in a variety of leadership roles.

County Commissioner Larry Kleinhenz said Hines’ connection to the Farm Bureau does not constitute a conflict of interest.

However, Murray questions whether the zoning board chairman can stick to the criteria when making his decision.

“Considering his background, it seems to me it would be hard for (Hines) to be unbiased,” Murray said.

When attempts were made to contact Hines, he left a message stating that because the “zoning board is judicial in nature, and since we act as a judge, we are not allowed to discuss the case with anyone, even the press.”

Hines isn’t the only county zoning board member who opponents say may have a conflict of interest.

During questioning from Mike Jordan, a Clay Township resident, board member Jason Newton admitted in January that he purchases grain from Gelfius. Jordan suggested Newton also has a conflict of interest. Newton did not offer a response.

Zoning board member Roger Glick, co-owner of a seed company that does business with Gelfius and who lives about a mile southwest of the site, did recuse himself last month.

But Kleinhenz said that unless a board member might specifically have a financial stake in the outcome of a BZA decision, there’s no conflict of interest.

If Hines, Newton and Glick all were to abstain from voting, that would leave only two remaining zoning board members, Jim Reed and Gil Palmer.

However, the government departments that appointed individual BZA members could appoint alternates, according to Columbus-Bartholomew County Planning Director Jeff Bergman.

There are seven large-scale hog farms in Bartholomew County now, the largest of which has a 3,000-head capacity, according to the county.

Two board members who were not present in January — Zach Ellison and Jim Reed — will be allowed to vote on the Gelfius request as long as they listened to a recording of January’s meeting and read all written evidence submitted, Bergman said.

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