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Wednesday, March 18, 2009 07:28 am

Buckhart hog operation opens while neighbors fume

Courts may decide whether “new” facility remains in operation

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Bob and Sandy Young of Rochester, hold an open house to celebrate the opening of their 3,740 head wean-to-finish swine production facility on Feb. 27.
PHOTO BY JONATHAN KIRSHNER

Last month, Bob and Sandy Young hosted a ribbon-cutting and open house at their hog farm a few miles east of Rochester on Buckhart Road. About 350 people showed up to listen to a few speeches, dine on free pork chops and tour the state-of-the-art shed that will eventually house some 3,740 hogs being fattened for Cargill. At that point, the containment pens were empty, but they’ve since been filled with adorable piglets, who have made their debut on WICS Channel 20 news.

Not all the Youngs’ neighbors are celebrating, however. A small group of Rochester and Buckhart residents filed a lawsuit and obtained a preliminary injunction that temporarily blocked the Youngs from building this concentrated animal feeding operation, or factory farm [see Dusty Rhodes, “Raising a stink,” May 17, 2007]. Last March, the 4th District Appellate Court vacated the injunction, clearing the way for construction to continue.

Both sides are risking their homes on this legal fight: These neighbors, who call their nonprofit corporation Rochester Buckhart Action Group, put up a $60,000 bond and stand to lose another $200,000 if the Youngs’ damage claim ultimately prevails in court. When Judge Leslie Graves rebuffed the Youngs’ January request for the $60,000 bond, Bob Young told the State Journal-Register that the legal loss might force him and his wife to sell their residence, which he said was facing foreclosure (they have since reworked their mortgage). The Youngs have appealed; their brief is due before the 4th District court next week.

Despite the high stakes, both parties sound optimistic. The Youngs’ attorney, Thomas Immel, says Graves’ reasoning for denying the Youngs damages was faulty. “I believe Judge Graves applied the wrong standard,” he says. “We’ll see what the appeals court thinks and go forward from there.”

RBAG’s attorney Patrick Shaw says his clients are looking forward to a final decision on procedural issues so that they can move on to the merits of their case. “The appeal is on whether the injunction was entered wrongfully. That’s not the meat of our case,” Shaw says. “Once this issue is decided, then we will present our evidence and arguments that the hog facility is illegal. If the judge agrees with us, he’ll have to be shut down, although I’m sure that if she decides that, it will also be appealed.”

The neighbors had no opportunity to object to the CAFO before Young began building it because he applied to the Illinois Department of Agriculture for a permit to “expand” his 40-cow dairy farm into a factory-scale hog farm. The permitting process for a “new” facility would have allowed public comment. Young had a smaller swine-finishing facility that was demolished in the 1990s. The question of whether Young’s recently-opened CAFO is “new” or an “expansion” is the crux of the legal fight.

Last month’s open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony was sponsored by the Illinois Pork Producers Association, which announced the festivities via a press release that used the word “new” six times to describe Young’s CAFO, calling it a “new swine facility,” a “new hog farm,” a “new swine production facility” and a “new farm.”

Immel didn’t see the press release, but says the Pork Producers were referring to “the fact that it is a new building.”

Darrell Berry, a neighbor and member of RBAG, says his group has been contacted by about 40 other nearby residents interested in fighting the CAFO. “People can become prisoners of their own property. That’s what keeps us up at night,” he says. “It comes down to do you do something or do you do nothing? So we are doing something.”

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