Does Iron County have room for more large-scale animal feeding operations? New state law to find out

Photo of cattle grazing in Iron County, Utah, used for illustrative purposes only, March 27, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

PAROWAN — Iron County officials say they will be working to address concerns raised by a recently passed piece of state legislation regarding large-scale concentrated agricultural feeding operations.

Photo of cattle grazing in Iron County, Utah, used for illustrative purposes only, March 27, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

SB 130, which was signed into law March 15 by Gov. Spencer Cox, requires each of the state’s counties to identify areas where new concentrated agricultural feeding operations may be located – and to do so by next Feb. 1.

The new law applies only to large-scale operations involving many animals and not to smaller farms and ranches. For example, the minimum number of animals needed to constitute a concentrated agricultural feeding operation is 700 dairy cows; 500 horses; 10,000 sheep; 55,000 turkeys; or 25,000 hogs.

The bill was passed with support from all Southern Utah legislators and was among a few measures discussed by Iron County commissioners and county planning staff at the commission’s March 22 meeting.

Iron County planner Reed Erickson later told Cedar City News that the county already has an ordinance on the books for concentrated agricultural feeding operations.

“We’ve had an ordinance that has regulated and done a good job for locating those CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations over the last 20 years,” Erickson said. “We did an extensive ordinance in 2001 that set the numbers and then set all the regulations. It has been in place and operational and has done a good job for us.”

Erickson said it was frustrating when the Legislature “feels like they need to solve somebody else’s problem somewhere else in another county – and do it statewide.” 

Photo of cattle grazing in Iron County, Utah, used for illustrative purposes only, March 27, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Iron County already has a handful of the feeding operations, Erickson noted, including a couple large dairy farms, one near Paragonah and one west of Newcastle, in addition to swine operations located in the north part of the county. 

Those won’t be affected by the new legislation, since they are existing operations, Erickson said.

“This ordinance is attempting to determine new locations,” he said. 

Another aspect of the new law is that it doesn’t allow counties to discriminate by species. In other words, an area that is designated as an appropriate location for a chicken feeding operation must also be usable for cattle, swine, sheep, horses, turkeys and other types of domesticated animals.

Erickson said Iron County’s existing ordinance does break out swine operations separately from dairies and other large concentrated feeding operations. 

“We don’t know yet what that means to us,” he said. “Those are the things we’re going to have to sort through and work out.”

“It’s too early at this point to say what effect it will have, because we haven’t gone through the process and really scrutinized the legislation enough in relation to our ordinance for the things that will need to be changed, outside of the mapping process,” Erickson added. “And so, that’s what we’ll start working on.”

Erickson said public input will be welcome as the county moves forward with the process of updating its relevant zoning maps and ordinances during the coming months.

“I’ve outlined a number of things that we already have in our ordinance, and considering the numbers that we currently have, a lot of that will still be fine,” he said. “We can continue with our current ordinance in some aspects. But I think the main difference is that we now have to identify on a map that shows where they can be located and where they can’t.”

Although concentrated agricultural feeding operations can provide an economic boost to the areas in which they are located, they are sometimes met with concerns such as the smell of manure, the risk of spreading disease and other environmental issues.

“These kinds of large operations can be a benefit to a county,” Erikson said. “It’s just that they need to be located in the right place.”

SB 130 requires each of the state’s 29 counties to identify at least one new area suitable for locating a feeding operation, unless a county can demonstrate that such an operation is not feasible due to its population density and/or lack of suitable space, in which case it can declare itself exempt. According to the language of the approved bill, each of the designated areas should have “reasonable” access to infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water.

The originally proposed deadline for the counties to identify and document their feeding operation locations was in May 2022, but the bill sponsor, Riverton Sen. Scott Sandall, said during a discussion on the Senate floor that moving the date up to Feb. 1 will allow the measure to be evaluated and potentially adjusted during the next legislative session.

For a complete list of contacts for Southern Utah representatives and senators, click here.

Check out all of St. George News’ coverage of the 2021 Utah Legislature here.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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