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Wednesday, May 7, 2008 01:39 am

Pig tort

Pig farm opponents mount last-ditch appeal to state Supreme Court

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Bob and Sandy Young

When the fight involves 3,350 hogs, their excrement, a farm couple, some “city slickers,” and two lawyers, you’ve got to expect some mud to be slung — and that’s just what’s happening in the ongoing legal saga of family farmers Bob and Sandy Young, their proposed swine-fattening operation, and a few of their downwind neighbors in Buckhart. The Youngs, who currently run a 40-cow dairy, used to have about 2,200 hogs. They quit the pig business in 1998 and demolished their swine barn in 2004. In 2006, with a contract from Cargill, the Youngs filed forms with the Illinois Department of Agriculture indicating that they planned to erect another swine barn and an excrement pit to accommodate 3,350 hogs. When neighbors got wind of their proposal, they formed a nonprofit corporation, the Rochester Buckhart Action Group, and sued to stop the CAFO, or concentrated animal-feeding operation [see Dusty Rhodes, “Raising a stink,” May 17, 2007]. Last summer, appearing before Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Leslie Graves, the neighbors won a preliminary injunction halting construction on the Youngs’ swine shed. The Youngs appealed, and on March 14 the 4th District Court reversed Graves in a 2-1 decision. Now the neighbors are asking the Illinois Supreme Court for permission to appeal, and the Youngs are asking the Supreme Court to deny permission. Each side has filed a brief charging the other with “absurdity.” It’s a high-stakes gamble for the neighbors, who have put up a $60,000 bond. The Youngs’ attorney, Thomas Immel, says they stand to lose twice as much, because he plans to help his clients recoup their lost income — which he estimates as $150,000 and mounting — when the case is finally over. The case centers on whether the CAFO counts as an expansion of the Youngs’ current farming operation or as a “new” facility. It’s a distinction with a major difference: Under the Livestock Management Facilities Act, passed by the General Assembly in 1996, a “new” facility would trigger public hearings, more stringent setback requirements that the Youngs won’t be able to meet, and design and siting requirements.
The only deposed witness in the case is Warren Goetsch, the state employee who approved the Youngs’ application. Goetsch admitted that a dairy’s “expanding” into a swine CAFO was a bit “out of the norm” and “getting close to the line,” but he gave the proposal a green light anyway. The Youngs argue that the Goetsch deposition illuminates all gray areas of the issue and should have been enough to persuade Graves to reverse the injunction, which two justices of the 4th District subsequently did. The RBAG argues that the 4th District erred in relying on Goetsch’s interpretation of the statute: “By extending to an agency spokesperson the sole, reasonable construction of the LMFA, the Fourth District abdicated its responsibility within this Constitutional framework.”
The RBAG also warns that the 4th District’s ruling “promote[s] an absurdity” and predicts that industrial agriculturalists will be inspired to resurrect other dormant farm facilities: “Why would pork producers locate new feeding operations where they would be subject to public and regulatory scrutiny when it would be cheaper and easier to locate a facility where a farmer once had horse stables, a chicken coop, or milking parlor?”
The Youngs counter that this prediction is “a slippery slope projection of future abuses.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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