In the southeast corner of Van Wert County is a small rectangle of land that juts down below the line with Mercer County like a Tetris block that went too far. That area represents the south half of Jennings Township. There, astride State Route 116, is Monticello, a small collection of homes and a church unknown to most Van Wertians.
The people of Monticello have children who attend Spencerville schools and their economic activity is directed as much toward St. Marys and Lima as Van Wert and Delphos. Within a couple of miles of Monticello are three other counties: Mercer, Auglaize and Allen.
Just southwest of that town has been proposed a farm that will house 2.2 million chickens. That’s about 2.1999 million too many to the surrounding residents who are not pleased with that proposed injection of poultry and even less pleased about the notice they received regarding the farm’s imminence.
In Ohio, rural areas are generally zoned for agriculture and there is no local control of that. So long as the use is related to farming, all zoning and control falls under the guidelines of the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Even the bureaucrats of these agencies can do little to halt these farms so long as general guidelines are met and followed.
The County Commissioners and the Jennings Township Trustees received notice of this farm back in January. We and the Trustees both signed a form that we received this notice. If we hadn’t signed, the owner of the farm would only need to have submitted an affidavit that we had been notified and the project would have proceeded regardless.
The ODA posted a subsequent notice that a hearing would be held in June regarding the project. Pursuant to law, the notice was published in the newspaper of largest general circulation of the county of the proposed farm, which is the Times Bulletin.
If the Times Bulletin has little readership in Monticello, it has even less in the nearby surrounding counties. Through a geographical anomaly, notice was posted where it was least likely to be seen by the people who were intended to receive it, reminiscent of the opening pages of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” were notice of the destruction of Arthur Dent’s home was posted in a dark basement with a locked door behind a sign stating “Beware of Leopard.”
Area residents are rightly indignant about the notification. Unfortunately, and maybe because they did not receive notice, they are not well-informed about the process and they believe that their Trustees did something underhanded in enabling the farm to proceed.
At a meeting earlier this month outside the Jennings Township house, a crowd of a hundred turned ugly. Although their complaints were legitimate, the anger directed at the Jennings Trustees, who are enabled with no power to encourage or halt the project, was not. Members of the crowd indicated that if just a few of them had known in advance, then word of mouth would have spread. In fact, it appears that more than a handful of people in the area were well aware of what was contemplated back in January and word did not spread.
There is a point where a crowd becomes a rabble. If you look to the right and the person is shouting down a public official three words into answering a question and so is the person on your left, beware, you just might be part of a rabble.
After several minutes of the crowd lambasting us and the Trustees as we tried to explain the process, Commissioner Owens came forward and told the crowd if they wanted to blame anyone they could blame him. At that point, I slid off to the side and into the rabble and yelled, “Let’s get him!”
(I didn’t really do that and it was impressive seeing the calm implementation of decades of experience as Sheriff. Stan soon had the crowd settled enough to almost carry on a rational conversation. Almost.)
I am not blaming the crowd for their passion nor am I blaming them for wanting someone to blame. If 2.2 million chickens were moving in down the road from me, I would be angry. Perhaps only knowledge of the process would keep me from joining a rabble. But there is absolutely nothing that can be done locally to stop this chicken farm as the law now stands outside of convincing the owner not to do it.
The legal remedy is a nuisance lawsuit. A civil suit can be brought for odor, flies, toxic runoff, property devaluation, and any other damage. Counter to this is Ohio’s Right to Farm law, which eliminates most minimal nuisance claims. Nuisance suits accrue only after the farm is up and running. I would advise those concerned to establish baselines for air and water quality before the farm commences operations.
The one benefit of a farm this large is that it will be monitored by the Ohio EPA. Farmers will tell you that industrial farms, if they are done right, cause little nuisance to neighbors. And many neighbors of current farms would beg to differ.
The problem in opposing these farms is that they hit communities in isolation and by the time the fight to stop one ends in futility, there is no organized drive to fight the next one. If a group wants to change the law, it will need to organize for an extended lobbying process in Columbus. Of course, this long-term effort would do nothing for the current situation in Monticello.
There are two sides of the argument – the right to do what you want with your land to make a living and the right to enjoy the benefits of owning your country home free of newly created foul smell, flies, and lesser water quality. But until the argument is had at the state level, there is no debate to be had locally. To paraphrase Shakesepeare, any shouting at Township Trustees about it is a great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing.