Amid protests from neighbors, a major feedlot expansion project is one step closer to coming to fruition after a permit was recommended for approval by the Douglas County Planning Advisory Commission on Tuesday evening.

The conditional use permit would allow the expansion of an existing 680 animal unit feedlot to a feedlot that would house 6,800 animal units. The applicants of the permit are Joe and Hope Wagner and Wayne and Alice Wagner. Joe Wagner, who owns a beef cattle farm in Millerville Township, is the one who would be expanding his operation by tenfold.

There were numerous concerns by area residents and neighbors and a petition signed by residents opposing the project. Concerns included traffic, road conditions, size of the operation, water runoff, manure (smell, storage, health risks and more), lake quality, grazing and more.

"What about the roads and the traffic?" said Carol Koep, who lives about a mile from the farm. "Who is going to update the roads? I am scared to drive on them, almost had to take the ditch. It can't go on like this every day, all day. I'm not paying a dime more in taxes (to fix the roads)." Jodee Molitor, an area resident, informed the commission of a petition that she said was signed by an estimated 250 people who oppose the project. She questioned whether their voices mattered.

Joe Wagner, who got a chance to respond to all the concerns later in the meeting, said, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but there are a number of people in favor of it."

Despite all the opposition, Jim Stratton made the motion to approve the project.

"I will stick my neck out here and make the motion," said Stratton, one of the planning advisory commission members, who is also chair of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. "We live in a diverse county, we are all neighbors, but I will make the motion to recommend approval with its 18 conditions."

The recommendation was unanimously approved.

Project details

The proposed plan includes the construction of two total confinement barns with 12-foot deep concrete manure storage pits, two total confinement monoslope barns with manure pack bays, an open lot area with runoff controls and a small monoslope partial confinement barn for additional shelter, a cattle-working building and a concrete feed storage area.

Wagner would also construct two lined ponds to contain surface water runoff from the open lots and feed storage areas.

Attorney addresses petition and more

Scott Anderson, an attorney who is occasionally hired by Douglas County for planning and zoning matters, was on-hand and addressed the issue of the petition. He said the commission is required to review the evidence presented to them and that "speculation and conjecture" can't be used in the decision-making process.

Even though more than 250 people reportedly signed the petition against the project, the board can't use that on which to base their decision.

"If a board based their decisions on numbers alone, there would be a lot of reversals," said Anderson. "Facts matter, not numbers. The petition isn't anything legally significant."

He told Molitor, and the rest of the 100 or so people in the room, that people need to present information based on evidence regarding manure, water and any other issues they may have.

Molitor, who said she just recently learned of the feedlot expansion project, told Anderson that she spoke with a state senator to whom she had sent the petition and he told her it would "hold weight."

Anderson replied, "The senator doesn't hold a law degree."

Anderson also addressed the concern of cattle grazing in area pastures. He explained that pastures aren't feedlots and are not regulated by law. He also explained that the grazing issue with cow/calf production had no bearing on the feedlot issue.

Dave Rush, Douglas County land and resource management director, reiterated what Anderson said regarding cow/calf management and the issue of grazing.

"It is important to know that the application is for the 6,800 animal unit feedlot in that location. A pasture operation is not part of this application and grazing is permitted," said Rush.

In favor of the feedlot

Leah Johnson, who owns a lake lot near the Wagner farm and is also a young farmer, said this area has lost nearly 90 livestock operations over the last decade and that this project is needed. She said it is an opportunity for agriculture to grow in this community and people should be supportive of the growth and economic impact.

"Joe has been an inspiration to me," Johnson said. "I am in support of this project."

Arlan Johnson from Urness Township, who is in support of the feedlot expansion, said, "They (those who propose the project) don't see what we see and how much this is needed in the community. We need this and that is what the land was purposed for."

Wagner addresses issues

After the public comment period, Wagner had a chance to address the concerns of those who spoke at the meeting.

Noise: Wagner told a man who had an issue with bellowing cows, "Cattle bellowing is the norm around the countryside."

Size: Wagner said his farm takes up 42 acres and that the livestock will only be on 11 of those acres.

Traffic: Wagner said he didn't know how to address the issues of too much traffic other than he said it's a sign of good rural economic development.

Manure: He said there is ample acreage for his manure and that other farmers want his manure. "I've had several calls already," he said. "Manure does a lot more good than people think. It's an asset, not a liability."

A woman in the audience brought up two previous violations regarding Wagner's cow/calf operation that he was supposedly charged with by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. He said they have both been dealt with and that he "is in good standing with the MPCA."

After a lengthy rebuttal from Wagner discussing all the issues, he said, "Millerville is still an agricultural area. I don't see an urban sprawl anytime in the future."

What's next?

Now that the conditional use permit has been recommended for approval by the planning advisory commission, it will be brought forward to the Douglas County Board of Commissioners at the next meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 20.