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Delta County Commissioners Approve Hen House, Plaintiffs Vow to See Them in Court

Since Delta County Commissioners gave conditional approval to Western Slope Layers’ cage-free chicken farm in August 2011, the hen-laying facility on Powell Mesa has been in and out of district court and the commissioners’ hearing room ten times. At issue: the compatibility of the facility with the surrounding neighborhood; its impact on neighbors’ health and real estate values; the ability of the county to properly monitor the situation; and what regulations actually apply to the facility. A similar hen-laying operation is proposed for Redlands Mesa.

On Tuesday, the commissioners held yet another hearing after reviewing the plaintiffs’ documents about the impact of animal feeding operations on air quality and human health.

It took Commissioner Doug Atchley a while to run down the history of the legal battle at yesterday’s sparsely attended hearing before opening the floor to his fellow commissioners. Both said they had reviewed all the documents and videos submitted by plaintiffs Travis Jardon and Susan Raymond – but they found no validity to their claims. Commissioner Bruce Hovde said the plaintiffs’ documents about the health effects of such facilities dealt not with chickens but with hogs – and his further remarks drew a response from Raymond, coughing and seething in the audience.

“The majority of the air-quality documents and everything were toward swine operations,” said Hovde. “I have driven by the Powell Mesa operation many times, I mean dozens, and I have yet to see the…”

“Come live there,” replied Raymond.

“I’m content where I live right now,” said Hovde. “It isn’t that I’ve ignored everything but I have yet to see it.”

Commissioner Roeber agreed. “I guess I would go back to the right to farm statute of the state,” said Roeber  “which states that it’s not a nuisance in an agricultural community unless it’s operating negligently and that’s probably the number-one thing we have to look at.”

Finally, Atchley added his opinion. “There is no standard for air emissions in the state of Colorado for animal feeding operations. This is an agricultural county,” said Atchley “and agriculture is currently exempt from state statues specific to air emissions. There are Colorado regulations which address odor emissions from swine operations, but not poultry. This is an animal feeding operation with 15,000 birds which in terms of poultry production is relatively small. Current setback to the plaintiff is approximately 900 feet. Recent oil and gas setbacks that were established are listed at 1000 feet. In notation and written testimony, a thousand foot setback specific development would be for a school or a hospital which does not exist here.”

In the end, the commissioners reaffirmed the development agreement with Rocky Mountain Layers but added a modification.

“An additional modification would be the development agreement to require WSL to obtain the services of a professional air pollution engineer to evaluate the air pollution emissions,” said Hovde “and provide a plan to reduce air emissions from the facility.”

The plaintiffs’ response was predictable. “Fortunately the state of Colorado through their statutes provides us with legal remedy through the courts against county commissioners who refuse to follow their own mandates and regulations,” said Travis Jardon. “That’s where this will play out, in the court.”

Susan Raymond, a veterinarian whose house is right next to the facility, reiterated her health claims. “I can’t go outside now during the day when it’s hot without a mask on,” she claimed. “I’m suffering from asthma, I take lots of medicine now, my horses have been sick. I have their feathers and other particulates in my air monitoring equipment. Things are on the horizon because these gentlemen are sticking their head in the sand and totally ignoring all the data we’ve given them.”

Jardon responded to a question about the proposed facility on Redlands Mesa. “I think it would be unwise for them to proceed to build that facility up there,” he said “when we feel very confident that we will prevail in the courts.”

Marty Durlin contributes freelance news features, including coverage of Delta County Commissioner's meetings and local governmental issues.