Between the Lines

Between the Lines by David Lias We�re nodding in agreement with the state Senate�s recent approval of a measure intended to boost livestock production in South Dakota.

The measure would prevent county residents from holding elections on unpopular zoning decisions involving livestock feeding operations.

The South Dakota Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 last Friday to send the bill to the full Senate for further debate.

This Tuesday, the state Senate passed HB1281. If the measure becomes law, it would allow county residents to hold a referendum on policies developed by a county planning and zoning board. But once those policies are adopted and livestock operations have met all the requirements, people could not force local elections to determine the fate of those farming operations.

Opponents said if the Legislature passes the plan, they will seek a statewide vote and ask South Dakota voters to repeal the measure.

That�s like hearing that the plane you�re flying on has suddenly lost all but one engine. It�s enough for us to grab our parachutes and bail out right now.

This measure likely will go nowhere, but not because it isn�t a good idea. Should it be approved, it will be subjected to a highly charged, emotional rather than rational campaign that will do more harm than good to the state�s agricultural industry.

Supporters said the bill is needed to boost South Dakota�s rural economy by promoting more livestock feeding.

�The issue here is, quite frankly, do people in this state support livestock feeding in South Dakota?� state Agriculture Secretary Larry Gabriel said. �I think that�s the future of our state, to do more livestock feeding so we can raise the price of our commodities.�

Opponents claim the measure could violate the South Dakota Constitution by interfering with people�s rights to vote on issues and take away local residents� ability to control their own neighborhoods.

Here�s why we think the proposal has merit.

South Dakota didn�t lose any farms during the last year but it didn�t gain any either, according to the state Agricultural Statistics Service.

South Dakota had about 32,500 farms in 2002, unchanged from the previous six years, according to a recent press release we received from the statistics service.

But the figure is down 7 percent from 10 years ago when there were 35,000 farms and down 13 percent from 20 years ago when there were 37,500 farms.

The amount of land in farms across the state also remained the same in 2002 at 44 million acres. The average farm size was 1,354 acres, unchanged from 2001.

The good news is we didn�t lose any more farms in 2002.

The bad news is we didn�t gain any more farms in 2002.

A good reason for that is that farmers aren�t really treated fairly with the way state and local rules and regulations currently work.

Today, a farmer can spend a lot of time and money complying with the rules, and local residents then hold a referendum election to block a proposed feedlot, hog confinement, dairy or other livestock operation.

We agree with Gabriel�s observation that people spending money to plan livestock feeding operations need to know from the beginning that they can start their business as long as they comply with the rules.

A county vote to approve a livestock operation would require a two-thirds majority of the board, so projects would be closely scrutinized, Gabriel said.

The bill was written in response to a state Supreme Court decision that said a county board�s decision on a livestock permit was legislative, not administrative, so the decision could be referred to a county vote.

The bill would allow county officials to designate certain types of development and activities as allowable uses under zoning regulations.

It would also allow appeal of zoning decisions to county commissioners, specifying that their decisions are administrative and not subject to voter referendum. Opponents, however, could challenge those decisions in court.

In the past, we�ve noted on this page that we�re big fans of the referendum process.

And in just the past five years, Vermillion certainly has had its fair share of discussion and, at times, disagreement about legislative versus administrative actions of local government.

HB1281 deserves consideration because any proposed agricultural development in South Dakota, under this measure, would have to meet the high scrutiny of county officials.

It�s unfortunate that state voters will unlikely fail to ever give it a chance to work.

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