Coming to your backyard

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Given the choice between a term as a township supervisor or slogging the manure from a pig pen once a week I’d hold my nose and grab the shovel. The time you’ve got to put in earns you about a buck an hour and you have to listen to people all the time who don’t want something built in their backyards. In most of eastern and southern Pennsylvania that part of the job has gotten a lot worse in the last 5 years.

The things that people don’t want in their backyards are fairly common. Box stores are their own worst enemies when it comes to local zoning. Veterans of the process know they promise everything and deliver nothing. Baby factories, also known as townhouses that generate expensive demands for schools and roads are high on the list. But the usual suspects in the process, trash dumps, large retailers and convenience stores have been replaced by an unlikely target: farms.

Those cute posters published by tourism bureaus all over the state showing a dramatic twilight over serene pastures are rapidly becoming relics of another era. Today factory farms are the rage and courtesy of the general assembly they could be coming to your backyard.

Factory farming began to burst out in Pennsylvania about a decade ago. Farmers, some that had sold their development rights to the state or county, began to lease their farms to international agri-businesses. Going from 300 pigs to 3,000 made a big difference in their neighborhoods and none of the differences were good. Neighbors feared poisoned wells and streams. Close in the quaint smell that comes with living in the country turned into the equivalent of living next door to the monkey house at the zoo.

All over the state, township supervisors began to zone the beasts out of existence. About 50 local governments passed ordinances that prohibited the lease or sale of farmland for factory farms. Farmers protested to Harrisburg so at the end of last year the general assembly voted overwhelmingly to eliminate factory farms from local zoning ordinances. This ‘revolution in agriculture’ will be regulated by the State Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Protection under standards developed by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. The Governor vetoed the legislation. The veto was challenged in court and last week the Superior Court left the bill in limbo. The appellate courts could take months to make a decision.

The myriad of public policy issues that affect factory farms suggests logically that larger governments should manage them. There’s animal husbandry, public health, run-off, sewage management and clean water issues. In parts of southern Pennsylvania the affects of factory farms on the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Compact must be managed. But the state shouldn’t define a community’s interest and the chances of the average citizen getting in the face of either the Secretary of Agriculture or the state’s senior environmental management to scream “not in my backyard” are slim and none.

Regulating zoning in this country is a tricky business. Property rights are a fundamental part of our birthright and no one group of businesses has been squeezed more than family farmers, they deserve every break. On the other hand if the general assembly begins to carve out pieces of local zoning codes and bring them under their protection what’s next? Trash dumps, box stores or sludge depots?

No legitimate business should be zoned out of existence. Pennsylvania’s municipal planning code should be amended to set local zoning standards for factory farms just like it does for the number of parking spaces at box stores or the height of signs at convenience stores. Those plans should then be presented to townships just like any other user that generates protest. That, at least, gives local residents a convenient place to scream: ”not in my backyard” even if someday it’s coming anyway.

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.

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