FARGO — Representatives of North Dakota counties and townships have come out against amendments to a bill that critics say would effectively strip local governments’ zoning authority to regulate factory feedlots.

Senate Bill 2345, expected to be voted on Thursday, April 4, by the House Agriculture Committee, has changed significantly since it was introduced, in ways that greatly limit the ability of townships and counties to regulate livestock feeding operations.

One of local governments’ primary means of regulating feedlots is to determine the appropriate setback — the distance from a livestock feeding operation to the nearest residence. State law establishes the setback at one mile, but townships and counties can impose setback requirements of up to 1½ miles.

An amendment to the bill, however, would take away the ability of local governments to impose longer setbacks than the state’s one-mile requirement, according to lobbyists for townships and counties.

“It’s a matter of how close people want to be to these things,” said Larry Syverson, a lobbyist and past president of the North Dakota Township Officers Association. “Feedlots have a long history of not being well received. They haven’t always been good neighbors, and people don’t want to be close to them.”

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Although some feedlot developers act responsibly and don’t cause problems, he said, “Other places they come in and try to take shortcuts and leave the neighbors fearful of the future and problems crop up.”

Aaron Birst, a lawyer and lobbyist for the North Dakota Association of Counties, said the organization wants the amendment eliminating local governments’ setback flexibility removed.

“We object to that suggestion,” he said. “The bill as originally envisioned was to keep county zoning authority ‘as is’ but would require the political subdivisions to give a timely response, which is a reasonable request.”

Besides eliminating local governments’ ability to impose more strict setback requirements, the bill also would require townships or counties to review and act upon feedlot applications within 60 days.

The Association of Counties doesn’t object to that time requirement, but the Association of Township Officials opposes the limit. Most township officials are farmers, who would find the 60-day time frame difficult during certain times of the year, Syverson said.

Also, many townships have 15-day public notice requirements for meetings, which can further crimp the time limit that the bill would impose, he said.

The bill’s limit on the time local governments can review permit applications from feedlots was intended to provide greater regulatory certainty for those considering costly animal feeding operations, proponents said.

The bill is backed by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, which is trying to boost the state’s livestock industry, as well as livestock and cereal grain organizations as well as state health officials.

“Our department fully supports this bill but recognize that this may not go far enough to provide our agriculture producers an equal playing field with neighboring states,” Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Tom Bodine said in written testimony.

The bill “creates a certainty for those applying to the Health Department to permit an animal feeding operation that the zoning rules in place at the time of the permit submission will not be allowed to change once the process has started,” he said.

State health officials issue permits involving environmental regulations governing feedlots. Local governments’ regulation of feedlots is limited to the size, scope and location of an operation.

“Who’s going to protect the local people now?” said Randy Coons, who opposes a factory hog farm that has been proposed near Buffalo in rural Cass County. Local governments "have no way to do it. It’s just kind of a blatant power grab to me.”

Syverson agrees with Coons that the bill would gut local zoning authority of feedlots, and said rural residents living near feedlots that aren’t well operated would suffer financially.

“It would severely limit the ability of people to protect their investment in their rural homes,” said Syverson, who farms near Mayville. “There’s plenty of ground in this state. They can do these developments where they’re welcome. They don’t have to push them on everyone.”