New manure pit sparks debate in town and beyond

FERRISBURGH — Neighbors of an almost completed Ferrisburgh manure pit are upset about its potential impact on their quality of life and about the pit approval process, and they have protested to the Agency of Agriculture, the Ferrisburgh selectboard and their elected state representatives.
The farmer and state officials say the pit not only follows all regulations, but it is environmentally sound and sited as far from neighbors as is practical.
As Vermont dairy farms face increasing pressure to manage disposal of manure in ways that will ensure it doesn’t leach into streams and lakes, such satellite pits could become more common and possibly nearer other homes and business.
The neighbors in this Ferrisburgh case have made their case against the Middlebrook Road satellite manure pit on a “Stop the Poo Pit” Facebook page and on Front Porch Forum, by contacting media outlets, and at the Sept. 1 Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting.
Outside that meeting, Middlebrook Road resident Ed Amirault told two reporters the Allandra Farm pit is “like a moon crater out there in our beautiful little valley.”
Amirault, whose partner Anne Matthews for the past 13 years has operated Flower Power, an organic flower business west of the pit on Middlebrook Road, also spoke during the meeting.
Amirault referred to Matthews’ contentions that her flowers will absorb odor from the pit, making them unsalable, and that the odor and the pit’s appearance will drive away her pick-your-own customers. Based on town mapping, Matthews’ shop appears to be 1,200 feet from the pit; her plantings would be closer.
“This is going to totally impact our property values, our re-salability, even our ability to do business,” Amirault told the selectboard.
The Agency of Agriculture responded last week to neighbors’ concerns: Secretary Chuck Ross sent an email directly to neighbors who have complained. It stated in part that the project met all setback requirements, did not lie in a flood plain or affect wetlands, and that “Agency engineers worked closely with Allandra Farm to ensure that plans for this waste storage facility meet all environmental and regulatory requirements of the state.”
Still, opponents focused on an agency approval process that did not include prior notice to neighbors of the pit, which like a half-dozen similar pits in Addison County is not next to farm buildings, but near the fields on which the manure they contain will be spread.
Ferrisburgh selectboard chairman Steve Gutowski told the dozen residents at the meeting that the pit was legally warned by notices in newspapers and at the town office building.
But neighbor Matt Vogel was among those who said that should not be enough.
“Not listing the abutting neighbors, of which I am one, just doesn’t feel very neighborly,” Vogel said.
Gutowski agreed to put the issue on the selectboard’s next agenda, on Sept. 15, but said the neighbors should be looking to Agency of Agriculture officials and state lawmakers.
“The state of Vermont is the one you really need to talk to,” said Gutowski.
But Shellhouse Mountain Road resident April Mentzer said maybe the town should do more.
“It’s really sad the way this was handled, and the impact it could have on Anne’s farm across the street,” she said. “I don’t feel the way it was handled was safe for our community, and we can do better.”
Allandra Farm owner Allan Brisson and Agency of Agriculture officials tell a different story about the pit, its potential impact, and its usefulness.
Ross wrote, “Manure storage pits enable farms to capture and hold animal waste to ensure the materials are utilized under the right conditions to meet conservation requirements (e.g., allows for land spreading at a time when soil and climatic conditions are suitable),” and that “Allandra Farms has met all regulatory requirements and is in good standing with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture.” 
Farm owner Allan Brisson, a Waltham resident and former Ferrisburgh selectman, said he “was taken aback” by the response to the pit. He described it as an environmentally responsibly way to help handle the manure generated by the 1,000 milkers and 800 younger cows on his farm, which totals 2,000 acres across several sites that include 10 manure pits, including the new one.
Brisson, who said he also received Vermont Land Trust permission for what is his first satellite pit, applied to the agency for the circular pit in May and received approval in June. It will be 100 feet in diameter at its base; Brisson estimated at its surface it would be about 160 feet across, meaning it will cover about a half-acre.
He chose the location because it is on a 229-acre parcel he has owned for 29 years that includes about 200 acres of cropland; he spreads manure there several times a year.
The pit, which he does not expect to fill until next spring, will not change the spreading schedule, he said.
“The same amount of manure is going to be going on the fields that’s been going on for years,” Brisson said.
The pit there will allow the farm more time to spread manure as safely as possible, minimizing the chance for water pollution by avoiding rainy weather, he said.
“When you store it where it’s going to be applied, it saves a lot of time. You can truck it there in the offseason. When you cut the hay, your window to put it on is three or four days. So it helps you to get it on quickly,” Brisson said.
The site was chosen carefully, he said. As well as avoiding flood plain near Little Otter Creek to the south, it is also on the lot as far east as possible from Flower Power.
“They think we put it there because we have no consideration for the neighbors,” Brisson said. “We had to put it up by the road, (and it is) as far away from houses as it could be.”
Brisson also said prevailing westerly and northerly winds would carry any odor the pit might generate away from Flower Power.
An observer visited a smaller pit owned by Ferrisburgh farmer Ben Dykema in Charlotte, just over the Ferrisburgh line. No odor could be detected upwind of the pit. Downwind, the odor could be detected for 55 paces before it vanished.
Brisson also said his soils are tested regularly, and the impermeable clay that will line the pit is ideal for holding manure. At first, he said, manure will be trucked to the site twice a year, but eventually he will feed it from the bottom via a 7-inch flexible hose that will run 11,000 feet from his main farm. That will mean less disturbance to the pit surface and less odor, he said.
That “drag line” can also be used to more efficiently and responsibly spread manure, he said, because, again, the farm can act quickly to take advantage of dry weather and also, in the case of his corn stands, directly inject the manure.
“I have already several times had people come in with a drag line and inject manure into the soil, and when you do that, you can walk behind it with sneakers on and not get your shoes dirty,” Brisson said. “We plan to do that on corn ground. But they haven’t quite got it perfected yet for grass ground. But it’s probably coming.”
Now, neighbors are unsure whether anything can be done to stop the pit from being used, although Amirault and Matthews said they have hired attorney James Dumont to double-check the permits.
Resident Dave Mentzer said at the selectboard meeting he was not sure about the neighborliness of the process, but had researched the issue with the Agency of Agriculture, and that the pit’s permitting appears to be in order.
“I will say there is not a lack of oversight in the pit construction,” Mentzer said. “From a technical, permitting and regulatory perspective, there are no grounds for not allowing this project to go forward.”
Meanwhile, there is no question such pits are becoming more common, and could become more so as farmers face pressure under new rules to control their contribution to Lake Champlain’s phosphorus pollution.
Agriculture agency communications director Alison Kosakowski wrote in an email, “There are many satellite manure pits in Vermont. For context, at least six other farms in Addison County have installed similar pits.”
In a time where neighbors of solar arrays and their towns are also seeking more say on siting, the question some asked of the Ferrisburgh selectboard and of Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, is whether notification of abutters should be added to the permit process.
First, Lanpher said, “We’re not going to get rid of manure pits.”
Lanpher said she, too, was making sure the permits were in order, and that it was important for citizens to be heard on the issues of what the landscape would look like as times change.
“There’s development going on all around us, and it’s great we have citizens who are now very engaged in watching what’s happening in their community and being very concerned about the environment and aesthetics and are being very vocal about it,” she said. “They’re concerned that they’re not being involved early enough in the process. In some of these cases their voices aren’t in there early enough to make a difference before things get too far down the line.”
Still, Lanpher said, she is not ready to introduce a bill to add abutter notification for satellite pits, although she will still talk to those who are upset and keep an open mind. 
“Ag gets a pretty good carte blanche as far as certain regulations go. They’ve been here. This is our manufacturing, our farms. And it’s what we cherish in our communities as well,” she said. “I don’t think I will be bringing anything forward at the moment. I’m still listening to the neighbors.”
Lanpher suggested there still could be some cooperation along Middlebrook Road.
“When we know we’ve got all our I’s dotted and T’s crossed, there’s always room for being a good neighbor,” she said.
In her email, Kosakowski offered a suggestion. There were no landscaping contingencies attached to the permit, she said, but local cooperation might be a good idea.
“Planting trees is certainly one way for farmers and neighbors to address concerns about views,” she wrote. “We do encourage neighbors to work together in these circumstances to come to solutions that address the needs and preferences of the parties involved.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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