Laketown Township in northern Polk County didn’t want factory farms 10 years ago, and it’s worried about them today. The town’s comprehensive plan passed in 2009 called for it to “discourage and consider prohibiting” factory farms, as part of its goal to maintain rural character.
More than half of Laketown’s land is zoned as agricultural, but nothing like the large livestock facilities now considering setting up shop here.
Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) weren’t an immediate concern a decade ago, although the plan authors thought they were worth mentioning. But today, the township is trying to protect itself from an industry with its sights set on northwest Wisconsin.
In neighboring Trade Lake Township, an Iowa-backed company has proposed a 26,000-animal hog CAFO, raising red flags for residents. The Cumberland LLC proposal has the potential to pave the way for other facilities in the surrounding region, including Laketown, where property-owners have already received inquiries.
Cumberland recently disclosed its operation would produce about nine million gallons of manure each year, which would be spread on surrounding fields as fertilizer. Such practices often cause runoff into lakes and rivers, as well as contamination of groundwater.
Just like Trade Lake Township, Laketown Township also drains toward the Trade River, and eventually the St. Croix.
The targeted counties are trying to pass their own policies to manage CAFOs, although limited in their authority by the state of Wisconsin. Neighboring Trade Lake and Eureka Townships have passed their own local ordinances, and now Laketown is hoping to join them.
They say stronger regulation is required because, for example, Polk County’s CAFO ordinance still allows CAFO operators to spread manure within 25 feet of a lake or stream.
Last month, the township’s committee in charge of reviewing CAFO issued its report about the potential impacts and issues. It also included recommendations to protect existing farms, the township’s namesake waters, and the quality of life for community members.
It’s now in the town board’s hands. The board passed a moratorium in 2019 on new or expanded large livestock facilities to make time for the study. It expired this month.
With the report in hand, the board has three primary ways of proceeding. The committee did not suggest trying to outright ban CAFOs in the township, which it probably can’t do legally. The recommendations are focused on regulating the facilities and providing public input.
First, the board could amend an existing ordinance to include CAFOs, and require companies to provide a “damage deposit” for pollution clean-up or facility closure if the company isn’t able to do it. It might also include requirements to reduce impacts like smell.
Second, Laketown could require a permit to operate a large livestock facility, focused on where it would be located. That permit could include restrictions to manage odors, runoff, setbacks, and manure management.
Third, the township supervisors could pass a special ordinance regulating CAFOs, like those passed by Trade Lake and Eureka Townships in the past year. This would let them restrict facility operations.
For example, Eureka Township’s ordinance instructs the town board to issue a permit only if “the operations as proposed, with or without conditions, will protect public health (including human and animal health), safety, and general welfare, prevent pollution and the creation of private nuisances and public nuisances, and preserve the quality of life, environment, and existing small-scale livestock and other agricultural operations.”
Because the state of Wisconsin limits what local governments can do to restrict CAFOs, elected officials have been hesitant to risk passing policies that could open them up to lawsuits. Agriculture groups threatened last year to sue Polk County if it passed some policies up for consideration.
The Laketown report points out that strict ordinances in neighboring Trade Lake and Eureka Townships were based on an ordinance passed in Bayfield County in 2015. Those policies effectively prevented a proposed CAFO from proceeding. The DNR challenged it in 2017, but a court ruled the policies were legal.
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