After two incumbents on the Laketown town board were unseated by challengers earlier this month, the new supervisors have swiftly overturned an ordinance intended to protect the community from pollution created by hog factories. The rural town is one of four in northwestern Wisconsin that passed similar ordinances in the past year, and has been the subject of a lawsuit by a Wisconsin business group challenging the rules.
The election held April 4 was widely seen as a referendum on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and two supervisors who had helped draft Laketown’s ordinance were unseated by two individuals who support the industry. At their first meeting as supervisors, newcomers Merle Larson and Ron Peterson joined Daniel King, who had voted against the ordinance originally, in overturning local control over the hog industry.
The tight election illustrated how divided the community is over the issue. The challengers prevailed by just 16 to 25 votes over the incumbents, or about 12 percent of the votes cast.
“With little ado on April 18, 2023, Laketown’s new supervisors ended all protections against hog factories for residents’ health and property values,” wrote Protect Laketown, a local group which had supported the incumbents. “At a meeting that wasn’t announced until 7:00 pm April 17, two new supervisors took their seats about 7:30 on April 18. Within minutes they rescinded Laketown’s livestock ordinance. The red carpet is now laid for factory developers desperate to get out of Iowa and Minnesota where viruses are wiping out herds.”
The ordinance was the result of two years of work by town officials and residents, who researched legal issues and environmental threats to develop it. Facilities to house as many as 26,000 hogs have already been proposed in the neighboring town of Trade Lake, and several area communities are concerned they could be next as the industry seeks to expand out of Iowa and develop networks of CAFOs that raise hogs from birth to slaughter.
Large-scale livestock facilities are associated with numerous risks to lakes, rivers, and groundwater, as well as air pollution and other impacts that contaminate the environment and reduce property values. The overturned ordinance would have required anyone proposing to keep more than about 1,000 hogs to apply for a local permit, provide a “security deposit” to clean up contamination if the company does not, and operate in ways that reduce the impact on neighbors and the environment.
Laketown was sued last fall by the Wisconsin Manufacturing Council, the state’s largest business group, over its ordinance. Industrial farming proponents say state law prevents local communities from enacting stricter regulations than what those created by the legislature and DNR. The town’s lawyers had argued the community has the right to regulate the facilities if its policies were supported by science.
The lawsuit now seems fated to fizzle out. Since the complaint was first filed in October, attorneys had been exchanging motions and filings in Judge Scott Nordstrand’s courtroom. But now, without an ordinance in effect, there is nothing to argue about. On Tuesday of this week, a proposed order for dismissal was filed in Polk County district court.
One of the ordinance opponents celebrated the new supervisors’ actions. Plaintiffs Sarah and Michael Byl operate a small dairy in Laketown and had joined the lawsuit led by the statewide group.
“I was really glad to see our new township board rescind the ordinance tonight,” said Sara Byl in a statement released by a dairy industry lobby group. “For almost 5 years, we tried to get the old board to listen to us. Instead, they shut the farmers out and only listened to the activists. This was a great win for all of us. It can be done, and Laketown is a good example to never give up.”
Environmental and health advocates point out the Byl farm has previously been part of the problems they are seeking to prevent. In 2018, Michael Byl was convicted of illegally dumping fill into a wetland.
Local ordinances to regulate large-scale livestock facilities remain in effect in four other nearby towns: Bone Lake, Eureka and Luck in Polk County and Trade Lake in Burnett County. Last month, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources rejected the first CAFO proposal in the region for failing to provide information about where it will spread nine million gallons of manure and other waste each year.