A GOP-led bill being fast-tracked through the Legislature would revamp the process for regulating new or expanding farms by placing authority over future farm siting rule changes in the hands of a new committee with a majority consisting of farm interest groups.
The bill follows criticism by agricultural groups that previous Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection committees tasked with reviewing and recommending changes to the state’s farm-siting rules failed to include enough input from farmers.
Opposition to proposed farm-siting rules — which included setbacks from property lines; management plans; odor, nutrient and runoff management; and manure storage facilities — reached a boiling point last year and played a role in the firing of state agriculture secretary Brad Pfaff by Senate Republicans. The proposed rules were ultimately tabled.
During a committee meeting Thursday, Democratic lawmakers expressed concern over the complexity of the bill, which reached DATCP on Monday, and its potential impact on state farm-siting rules. Under the bill, changes to existing farm-siting rules would be considered and recommended to DATCP by a nine-member board. Five of those members would represent farm organizations.
“It’s very heavily weighted with farmers and there are other groups that are obviously involved with farming too and live next to farming and we need to be considering everybody,” said Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo.
The new nine-person committee would include five members from farm groups including the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, Wisconsin Farmer’s Union, Wisconsin Dairy Alliance, Wisconsin Pork Producers and Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, or other statewide agriculture-related organizations. Another member would be from a statewide environmental organization and the remaining three from the Wisconsin Towns Association, Wisconsin Counties Association and the Land and Water Conservation Association.
Any changes by DATCP to farm-siting rules would need approval from two-thirds of the committee.
Bill co-authors Rep. Travis Tranel, R-Cuba City, and Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, said the new legislation creates clarity for farmers and takes the burden of processing and enforcing siting and setback applications off local entities.
“This is not a simple bill, it is pretty complex,” Tranel said. “We didn’t necessarily go out and look to get involved in this process, but the farm groups came to us, and so did the local units of government and they said, ‘We have an opportunity to make this process better,’ and that’s what we’ve really spent the last few months on.”
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The bill also would eliminate a current state rule that requires DATCP to review the state’s now 14-year-old livestock-facility siting rule ATCP-51 every four years. Proposed updates to setbacks from property lines; management plans; odor, nutrient and runoff management; and manure storage facilities, have never been passed.
Currently, local governments that choose to permit factory farms have to enforce state rules, while also taking on the cost of farm-siting permit applications. Only about 8% of towns currently regulate factory farms.
Under the legislation, any farmers with more than 500 animal units looking to expand or build a new livestock facility would apply to DATCP. Local governments would maintain control over zoning and building standards.
“I think some people could say that’s a loss of local control; I would say it’s a loss of local burden,” said Larry Konopacki, attorney and lobbyist with the Wisconsin Towns Association.
However, DATCP assistant deputy secretary Angela James said staffing at the state level would be an issue. The bill’s language does not include any funding to DATCP for staffing.
“We do not have the positions or work power required to begin to directly administer this program,” James said.
Hopes for passage
Marklein said he hopes to see the bill pass yet this session. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said he didn’t know all the bill’s specifics, but said he was interested in updating farm-siting rules before the Assembly adjourns next week.
“I would like to be able to update the livestock-siting rules before we adjourn, but we wanted to have the hearings, see what people’s concerns were,” Vos said.
The bill has received support from several of the state’s largest agricultural organizations, including the Dairy Business Association, Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association and Wisconsin Pork Association. Wisconsin Counties Association and Wisconsin Towns Association also support the bill, while Wisconsin Farmers Union and Wisconsin Conservation Voters have filed against the legislation.