Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Promises of Local Control (Part 1 of a Series)

Local control...

You've undoubtedly heard those two words a lot lately in Iowa. You've seen them displayed on bumpers stickers and painted on protest banners.

Local control -- yep, here in Iowa, we've been hearing about local control for years. Lots of people throw the phrase around. Local control is good. We need it. If we had it, everything would be just fine and dandy.

But just ask 10 average Iowans what "local control" means and you're likely to get 10 very different responses. Then ask 10 Iowa legislators, and be prepared for some really creative answers.

Let's not mince words. What we're really talking about is giving county governments in Iowa more of a say in where large livestock confinement operations should and shouldn't be built.

Iowa politicians have struggled for years to find a workable way to do this without derailing our agricultural economy. Their overly cautious approach is not entirely unfounded. According to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa's cash receipts from farm commodities total nearly $16 billion a year. Iowa is the national leader in the production of pork, soybeans, corn and eggs. Iowa is ranked second in the nation in the production of red meat.

And Iowa is poised to host significant growth in beef cattle production. This is because of the abundance of dried distiller grains, a nutritious byproduct of ethanol production that is fed to cattle.

Without question, we cannot afford to choke the economic engine of agriculture in Iowa. To do so would spell economic disaster.

Nonetheless, we have a serious problem that must be addressed. Modern livestock production is simply unwelcome in some parts of the state. And with the expected growth in beef-feeding operations, something must be done as soon as possible to protect both the livestock industry and Iowa's rural residents.

There is already a legal process that has been proven over a century to resolve just these kinds of problems. Time and time again, this process has been used to direct the orderly development of land in America, protect property values and keep incompatible land uses separated.

It's called zoning. It's worked really well since the first urban planning laws were enacted in New York more than 100 years ago. For communities and rural areas in Iowa, zoning -- or the more palatable term "land-use planning" -- has served us well for many years in our efforts to keep industrial developers from stepping on the toes of residential and commercial property owners. And vice versa.

Right now, more than 80 of Iowa's 99 counties already have some sort of zoning law regulating their unincorporated areas. But there's a hitch. Because of a few short sentences in the Iowa Code, Chapter 335.2, agricultural land in unincorporated Iowa is exempt from virtually all county zoning regulations. And that's why you can build a large-scale livestock feeding operation without a whole lot of local government control over where you decide to build it. Or you can move to rural Iowa and build a luxury home, call it a "farmhouse" and proceed to complain about your neighbors for farming.

For years, agricultural lobbying groups have fought against zoning for agriculture. The Coalition to Support Iowa's Farmers, a collaboration between the Farm Bureau and five Iowa farm commodity groups, calls such efforts "misguided." They say that in Nebraska, new regulations including county zoning authority have "decimated dairy, cattle and hog numbers." They say Nebraska's hog numbers have dropped by 36 percent as a result of such new regulations.

They also point to a situation in Minnesota. The coalition says an advisory group was created to study the downward spiral in livestock numbers shortly after a cheese plant closed because of insufficient local milk supplies. "Nearly $100 million in regional economic activity vanished along with 100 skilled jobs. The advisory group said a significant impediment to new livestock farms was the lack of regulatory uniformity, adding that the uncertainty has 'a chilling effect on growth of other livestock sectors.'" Farmers were simply unwilling to invest.

They make a good point. A patchwork of more confusing regulations is not what we need. If you really think about it, thick volumes of regulations can only really be surmounted by companies that can afford to hire lawyers and engineers. That does not help the family farmer who only wants to modernize to remain competitive at producing livestock.

It's not going to be easy, but it's time for Iowa legislators to step up and prepare a workable bill to give Iowans local control. What we need is a strict, uniform set of guidelines, set at the state level, that can be administered by county zoning boards.

In the next article in this series, we will examine some steps that the state should take to give county governments more control of agricultural zoning. Click here for Part 2.

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