Courier staff writer
DEL NORTE — Organic egg production might have a home in Rio Grande County in the future, but not until its commissioners fully understand how the operation works.
On Wednesday morning, the Rio Grande County Commissioners (RGCC) moved to allow Merlin Yost to withdraw his conditional use application with the ability to reapply within two years without additional fees.
Yost, a construction contractor, wants to raise 5,000 hens using a 9,000 square-foot barn with an outdoor pasture, bringing the total footprint to three-fourths of an acre located at North Rio Grande County Road 6 West for the Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Co-op (OVC). On Tuesday, March 12, the Rio Grande County Planning Commission (RGCPC) unanimously recommended the RGCC approve the conditional use permit application, but not without reservation. Later that month, the RGCC moved to table the matter for 30 days after a public hearing so they and their staff could further research the proposed operation and how the Yost decision will affect similar permit applications in the future.
The main reason for yesterday’s non-approval is the proposed five-acre parcel resides in an area zoned residential.
“There are too many residences,” said RGCC Doug Davie. “They are too close.”
During the public hearing, the RGCCs heard from several Rio Grande County residents with multiple concerns about the proposed organic chicken farm. The concerns, in addition to the proposed location, included use of agricultural chemicals in proximity to an organic operation; manure odors; varmint control; truck traffic; Rio Grande Canal water contamination; flies; dust mitigation and disease control.
Yost addressed several of these issues on Wednesday. In a letter, he explained he would irrigate the pasture to help with dust mitigation; that proper ventilation would keep odors and flies at bay; and that fencing and a concrete barn floor would mitigate varmint infestations. He also contacted the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to potentially make a buffer zone a part of the operation in the future.
Rio Grande County Land Use Administrator Rose Vanderpool said she had not received any additional comments since the public hearing, but had become privy to chicken farms in Delta County involved with lawsuits. According to the North Fork Merchant Herald, the 15,000-hen Western Slope Layers operation is being accused in District Court of harming neighbors’ health through dust and dander.
“I think we need to be pretty cautious,” Davie said. “We aren’t saying down the road we won’t approve it. It will take time.”
Vanderpool added that it was the county’s duty to follow its Land Use codes, which include ensuring opportunities are compatible with neighbors and the surrounding area, that they don’t create health problems and that they take place in their designated zones.
She also recommended the RGCC amend several land use codes to reflect such as the number of animals permitted in a small farming operation.
“Things change and things come up,” Vanderpool said. “Sometimes the area you are looking at is not compatible.”
Yost said that if he is unable to use the five-acre parcel for the operation, he would not likely look elsewhere because he wants to have his home and his farm in one area.
“I see this as an opportunity to raise chickens on a small family farm to teach my children respect and integrity,” Yost said.
RGCC Karla Shriver recommended Yost, the RGCCs, the OVC and concerned residents hold a work session to find a way to bring organic egg production to the county.
“We want to welcome new industries,” Shriver said. “I am encouraged by what everyone is trying to do... We need to make this acceptable to neighbors and the county as a whole.”
Earlier this month, the Saguache County Commissioners approved two conditional use permits for OVC egg production. David and Candace Toews and Royce and Tamara Nickel will now begin producing organic eggs for packing and distribution on the Front Range.
Their farms are a phased build out of initially 7,500 Bovan Brown hens, up to 10,000, requiring 1.75 square-feet per bird with an additional five square-feet per bird of outdoor access, according to the Saguache County permit applications. Plans include 17,500 square-foot barns with an additional 1.15-acre pasture area, bringing the total barn and pasture footprint to approximately 1.55 acres.
The Toews’ farm is located on Saguache County Road E in Del Norte and the Nickels’ on Saguache County Road B.