Manure pit sparking notification questions

FERRISBURGH — The newly built satellite manure pit on Ferrisburgh’s Middlebrook Road continues to spark debate about not only how it was permitted, but also the larger question of how dairy farmers’ increasing use of satellite pits should be regulated.
The single biggest point of contention is whether neighbors of proposed pits should be notified before ground is broken.
The Agency of Agriculture now regulates and permits the pits. The agency considers the pits to be an environmentally responsible way for farmers to store and manage cow manure because the pits place manure next to the fields it will fertilize. That means farmers can act quickly to spread or inject manure when the weather cooperates, minimizing the chance of runoff pollution.
Neighbors of Waltham farmer Allan Brisson’s half-acre Middlebrook Road pit were surprised when bulldozers and backhoes arrived last month and started digging. They feared odor and the loss of property values and attractive views.
They complained to town and Agency of Agriculture officials and learned that Brisson had followed agency rules, the pit was not in wetlands or a flood plain, and it was legally engineered to all required specs.
But the process does not require notification on the state and town level.
“It appears the zoning administrator did the notification process properly,” said Ferrisburgh Conservation Commission chairman Craig Heindel at Tuesday’s Ferrisburgh selectboard meeting.
Some believed there had been a hearing from which abutters had been excluded, a question asked of the selectboard by neighbor Ed Amirault, co-owner with Anne Matthews of Flower Power, an organic flower and vegetable business also on Middlebrook Road.
Selectboard chairman Steve Gutowski said he believed there had not been a hearing, and other board members correctly pointed out that Brisson did not even need a town permit because of his agricultural exemption for a project that met zoning setbacks.
Brisson confirmed on Wednesday that his town permit had been simply signed by zoning administrator Ken Wheeling and had not required a public hearing.
WHERE NEXT?
The question at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting then became what those upset by the pit and the process should do.
At first, the selectboard gave mixed messages about where they should go next.
Responding to a question from Amirault, Gutowski said the town’s planning commission is taking testimony on a new town plan.
“You can suggest to them any changes you would like to see,” he said.
And board member Red Muir suggested the board of zoning authority.
“To me, this should be brought to an actual zoning board meeting,” Muir said.
But Gutowski also suggested it was a state issue, as did board members Loretta Lawrence and Jim Warden.
Vergennes Development Review Board Chairman Jason Farrell, who said he was a friend of Amirault and Matthews, pointed out the board was giving contradictory advice to people about their next stop, and suggested if the town could do nothing they should be referred directly to state officials.
“If it’s not the town, let’s not mess around with the town. Let’s get to the state,” Farrell said.
Warden a little later pinned it down.
“The state handles this, not us,” Warden said. “It’s agriculture.”
“You’re in conflict with your colleagues,” Farrell told Warden.
“Call the state,” Warden said.
Resident Bob McNary probably summed it up best, suggesting if the Agency of Agriculture was not responsive, that local legislators were the next stop.
“If folks have a problem, they need to talk to the state. If they talk to the state and don’t get any answers, they need to talk to their representatives,” McNary said.
LARGER ISSUE
There is no question the number of satellite pits in Addison County and elsewhere will increase. Agriculture agency officials estimate there are now a half-dozen in the county, and Brisson himself expects to add to his total of five pits, including the Middlebrook Road pit that is his first not right next to a barn.
“I’ll probably have a pit next to every large parcel,” Brisson said.
McNary, a former farmer, came down on the side of farmers not having to notify abutters about new satellite pits. He described farmers as Ferrisburgh’s backbone and said the large investments they must make to survive could be jeopardized by time-consuming and costly pit-siting processes.
“Folks need to understand what the town is about,” he said. “People are spending huge amounts of money.”
Farmer Chase Atkins said the Agency of Agriculture recently adopted new rules about satellite pits that increased setbacks requirements, but did not insist on notification. He agreed with that stance.
“There shouldn’t be the need for notification,” Atkins said.
On the other side, resident and farmer Jeff Jerger said his family had just subdivided a building lot across the road from the pit, and would not have done so at that site if they had known about Brisson’s plans.
Jerger said at the selectboard meeting he did not oppose satellite pits, but said notification was an issue.
“It is concerning we didn’t get notified. I realize Allan has got to do what he’s got to do,” Jerger said.
Brisson, speaking to the Independent on Wednesday, said he believed the idea that a farmer should be responsible for notifying all of his neighbors would mean “every pit is going to be a huge battle,” resulting in, “eventually, I’m out of business.”
Still, Brisson would consider dealing with neighbors to find acceptable compromises about pit location.
“There’s definitely room for that,” he said.
Brisson said he also believes the Agency of Agriculture already represents the public’s interest in the question of where pits should be installed.
“The public has the agency. The agency is paid by the public to represent their interests,” Brisson said, adding, “They’re there to make sure what we do is … environmentally responsible and acceptable to our neighbors.”
Jerger, however, told the selectboard he did not feel his efforts to get satisfaction from the Agency of Agriculture went well.
“There’s just not a lot of answers from the state. They don’t want to talk to anybody,” he said. “In the future it’s going to keep happening if nothing changes.”
Farrell also spoke outside the Ferrisburgh town office building.
He said that prominent Charlotte dairy farmer Clark Hinsdale had agreed to change the site of a manure pit in that town after neighborhood discussions. That example, Farrell said, shows that farmers and neighbors can compromise, an important point given what he called “clearly a trend” of more pits in Addison County.
Farrell said to avoid regular conflicts between farmers and their neighbors some sort of notification process would be the best way to go.
But Farrell said towns lack the power to make any change to the laws and instead should look to their representatives in Montpelier.
“They can’t,” Farrell said. “Which is why they need to ask for state intervention.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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