Residents near Fort White in Columbia County seemed surprised about the approval of a 12-house chicken farm earlier this year near the town, and rallied at Thursday’s Columbia County commission meeting.
Many—including a number of commissioners—say they are just learning about this development, and the meeting was filled with teary eyes, angry voices and righteous applause.
In July, JTC Farm Chicken Houses filed a permit with the Suwannee River Water Management District to build 12 chicken houses near Fort White, according to the Environmental Resource Permit.
According to the permit, Jenny Huynh is the owner of the farm. She was not present at the commission meeting and requested to speak to her lawyer before talking to WUFT News.
Jason Scarborough, a representative of the Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, said at the meeting that Pilgrim’s has a contract with Huynh to raise about 270,000 chickens. According to Pilgrim’s website, it produces 20 percent of chickens in the United States.
More than 40 residents voiced their opinions at the meeting. They said they were concerned with the effects that the chicken houses would have on the Floridan aquifer; the Santa Fe River and Ichetucknee River; gopher tortoise populations; declining property values near the farm; poor county zoning; disease spread; road conditions leading to the farm; and more.
Because of zoning laws the Columbia County commissioners could not halt construction.
County Manager Ben Scott showed those present that the location of the farm is zoned as an agriculture-3 area, which allows all agricultural activities. County land development regulations do prevent intensive agricultural use on agriculture-3 land, he said. Scott said intensive agriculture requires an industrial waste and wastewater permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Scott said the county is going to investigate if FDEP should issue the permit. Only then can it begin to determine if the land qualifies as intensive agriculture.
Jess Boyd, a press officer of FDEP, said in an email that “an industrial wastewater permit is currently under review for consideration…The department is aware that the location of the chicken farm is in a spring shed.”
One prominent issue was the perceived lack of information available to both the public and the county. District 3 County Commissioner Bucky Nash said he didn’t know about the chicken farm until two weeks ago. Ronald Williams, the district 1 county commissioner, said he was most disturbed by the lack of public notice about the farm’s construction.
“I want to make sure that the steps were clearly done so the public would have known what was going on,” Williams said.
County Manager Ben Scott said that the Suwannee River Water Management District does not notify the county when it issues permits, so commissioners were unaware of the poultry farm when it was first permitted.
“I hear someone say they saw the dirt being hauled in and the bulldozers clearing the property,” Williams said. “They didn’t know anything that was going on. If you live right there and didn’t know what’s going on, what do you think this board knew what was going on?”
It is not required for a permit applicant, in this case Huynh of JTC Farm Chicken Houses, to publish a legal advertisement in the newspaper notifying the public of the permit, said Tilda Musgrove, the business resource specialist of the Suwannee River Water Management District.
If an advertisement is not placed, then anyone can challenge the permit at any time. If an ad was placed, there is a 21-day limited window in which the public may challenge the permit, Musgrove said.
Scott said in an email that another result of the meeting is that county staff will inquire whether there are any state regulations about agricultural activities in designated Outstanding Florida Waters.
John Jopling, the president of the Ichetucknee Alliance, said at the meeting that he is concerned for the water systems in the region.
“Chicken litter [excrement], and human litter and every other kind of litter contains nitrates,” Jopling said. “The groundwater of this county, including that which is flowing into the Ichetucknee river, is 15 times the natural rate, and twice what even the Department of Environmental Protection said it ought to be.”
He said that zoning laws should be changed to prevent this type of activity from ever happening again.
Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, the policy director of Our Santa Fe River, said that without an industrial waste and wastewater permit from the FDEP, there would be no government officials to ensure that Pilgrim’s and the farm are keeping up with the best agricultural practices as promised.
She said there is a sinkhole on the property, which connects to the Floridian Aquifer. She presented a detailed case against the opening of the farm, and implored the committee members to consider the evidence.
Camille Swartz lives within half a mile of the chicken farm. She was present at the meeting and brought her daughter to the lectern to speak.
She said she has nothing against agriculture, but the chicken farm does not belong near her home and her neighbor’s homes.
“There is no proof of how this farm is going to be managed,” she said. “We had the gentleman from Pilgrim’s Pride come here and tell us. Do you see a permit that describes it? Is there anything on paper that was approved that describes it?”
She read a note that her daughter wrote, which said, “It should be moved to a place without very many people. It will ruin our road with all the semis coming for the chickens.”