One month after a controversial chicken farm was brought to the attention of Columbia County commissioners, residents are still waiting for answers and change.
The farm is still being constructed, but some residents are concerned about the county land-use regulations that allowed it to be built so close to Florida waters.
Betsy Thomason said she lives about a mile away from JTC Farm Chicken Houses, located at Wilson Springs Road and Southwest Briar Patch Terrace. The property is about two miles away from the Santa Fe River. The wooden frames of chicken houses are already being built.
Thomason started an online petition one day before the Oct. 15 county commission meeting to protest the construction of the chicken farm, she said. By Nov. 19, the petition reached 3,284 signatures.
“I started the petition… because I wanted to show the county commissioners how important it was to everybody,” she said. “And it didn’t seem to have much impact on the county commissioners, and so we realized that we had to keep fighting.”
Thomason then filed a petition for an administrative hearing with the Suwannee River Water Management District, which issued the only permit on file for the farm. She also began a fundraiser for legal aid in changing the county’s intensive agriculture regulations.
She said that bad county zoning allowed the 12-house chicken farm to open. It could house up to 270,000 chickens.
“People that do have farms just have a few acres and a few head of cattle or horses,” she said. “There is nothing around here within miles that has anything compared to the scope of anything that this chicken factory has.”
The farm is on Agriculture-3 land, which according to Columbia County land development regulations (LDRs), allows all agricultural activities, including raising livestock and poultry — except in intensive agricultural uses in high groundwater recharge areas, as defined by the county’s comprehensive plan.
The Columbia County Comprehensive Plan shows that the chicken farm is located on an area of high recharge potential to the Floridan Aquifer. This means that if surface water is contaminated, there is a possibility that the water will reach the aquifer, which supplies drinking water to Floridians.
Randy Jones, the county building and zoning coordinator, said the land has been classified as Agriculture-3 since 1986 when zoning was instituted in Columbia County. Jones confirmed that there have been no changes to the LDRs since then, and it is up to the board of county commissioners to revise the definitions of LDRs.
“Eighty-five percent of Columbia County is agriculturally loaned,” he said. “It doesn’t preclude agricultural uses in the higher recharge areas — just precludes how you can do some of it.”
Practices that may be called intensive agriculture and are not allowed on Agriculture-3 land must receive an industrial waste and wastewater permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
As a result of the October commission meeting, County Attorney Joel Foreman contacted the DEP to determine if the permit was required. In a November email, Foreman said that the DEP determined that the permit was not required.
This means the land cannot be controlled using intensive agriculture regulations.
“They (DEP) do assessments based on their projections for runoff for the type of operation proposed, and they do not consider chicken “broiler” operations like this one to be high water runoff operations,” Foreman wrote in an email.
Foreman also confirmed with WUFT in an email that because projected runoff for these broiler operations is minimal, the DEP does not need to analyze the environment or area where the farm is located to determine possible environmental damage.
However, Jenny Huynh, the owner of the chicken farm, is collaborating with the DEP to make a formal permit determination, according to DEP Press Officer Jess Boyd.
Boyd said that this could take several months, and the farm can continue construction as a decision is being reached.
WUFT attempted to reach Jenny Huynh or Larry Huynh for comment, but was unsuccessful. Attempts to contact a representative of Pilgrim’s Pride, the company that contracted the farm, about its runoff practices and standards were also unsuccessful.
Despite the DEP’s conclusion that farms of this nature do not create runoff water, John Jopling, the president of the Ichetucknee Alliance, still has concerns.
“We have a concern about the Floridan Aquifer in general of course, because it’s the same water that feeds our Ichetucknee springs,” Jopling said.
He added that it “is the same water that we all drink from. And that aquifer is particularly vulnerable in this area: the area of Southern Columbia County.”
Jopling said that nitrate levels in the Ichetucknee are already too high, and if nitrates from chicken feces go into the ground, it will go directly into the aquifer.
“So to allow an operation that is going to make worse a problem that we’ve already acknowledged exists is ridiculous,” he said.
The key to this issue, Jopling said, is rezoning and changing the definitions of existing LDRs.
“Columbia County could — and we believe should — adopt strict zoning. They should have a springs protection zone” Jopling said. “They have little signs that remind people all along the roadway that this is a spring shed, but they don’t have anything with any teeth in it,” he said.
By the end of the year, Jopling said the Ichetucknee Alliance intends to present county planners, commissioners and staff with solid evidence as to why zoning should be changed.
“I don’t think anything has been done about that so far, but we believe that is the key from preventing this sort of thing from happening again, and more broadly to protect the Ichetucknee and the Santa Fe from this kind of nitrate pollution,” he said.
District Two Commissioner Rusty DePratter said in an email that he agreed with County Attorney Foreman about the county’s legal position in dealing with the chicken farm.
If no wastewater permit is required, for now, the Agriculture-3 zoning allows the farm to operate, and legally, the county cannot do anything to stop it.