The Gristle

Chicken Large vs. Chicken Littles

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CHICKEN LARGE VS. CHICKEN LITTLES: If laughter is the best medicine, slaughter must rank among the worst.

Whatcom County Council wisely agreed to delay their vote last week on allowing slaughtering and rendering facilities in the county’s agriculture zone, returning the matter for additional study in their planning committee next year.

Such facilities are certainly necessary for an economy based around agriculture and livestock, and an essential ingredient for the nascent, progressive local food movement the county is attempting to create. Presently, only one USDA-approved facility operates north of Seattle, near Lynden. Which are reasons why the council finds the issue of siting of additional facilities in an agricultural county so visibly frustrating. Yet slaughtering and rendering are also dirty, toxic, frequently cruel endeavors, releasing horrors into the air and waste streams.

“Rendering facilities are one of the most disruptive types of operations imaginable,” former Bellingham Mayor Mark Asmundson cautioned county leaders as executive director of the Northwest Clean Air Agency. “The odors such facilities generate are, frankly, unimaginable. Their (negative) potency can only be understood by personal exposure. (Think mushroom composting and multiply by 10.) Additionally, the devaluation of properties adjacent to a rendering facility can be financially catastrophic,” Asmundson wrote.

Despite his caution, facilities of this kind are permitted in the county’s rural industrial and light industrial zones, and in the county’s rural industrial and manufacturing (RIM) districts. Farmers complain these zones are too far from their lands to be conveniently or profitably used. The proposal in front of council would allow slaughtering and rendering facilities of up to 15,000 sq. ft. to be sited in the county’s Ag zone, amounting to an upzone and potential repurposing of the county’s agricultural resource lands.

Frankly, though, this is exactly what zoning is for, to balance imperatives and to plan appropriate places to site (and limit) difficult things.

Council’s original plan proposed small-scale (5,000 sq. ft.) facilities to be placed in restricted zones to service local farms.

Last summer, council handed that recipe over to prep cooks on the Whatcom County Planning Commission, a notably hard-boiled group of egg-breakers and oath-takers who saw restrictions as an existential threat to property rights and unbridled free enterprise, and recommended smashing open the entire 88,000-acre Ag zone as an unconditioned use with reduced environmental review. Like a buzzsaw in a chicken coop, the planning commission tripled the permitted size and scale of slaughterhouses, dabbled with rendering, killed environmental safeguards and suggested language that would allow all this as accessories to one another, one after the other, potentially scattering toxic industry across the county’s suffering ag lands.

Flummoxed by the fly of ruffled feathers, County Council remanded the matter back to commissioners, requesting that planning staff provide examples of slaughterhouse regulations in neighboring Skagit and Snohomish counties. John Lesow, one of the last reasonable voices on the commission, suggested they just approve the staff recommendations. No; planning commissioners again shredded those modest recommendations:

An empire demands to be born! No guts, no glory!

Demagogues without balance or commonsense, this is the same group of property rights and free enterprise jihadists who, when asked to craft rules that might permit regulated mid-scale wind farms in Whatcom County, essentially outlawed them: Wind energy bad; bloodsport good. Whatever makes a hippie cry.

And like that earlier issue, they handed County Council a reeking, oozing sack of bloody garbage the council must now sift through to rediscover the original purpose and scope of what they intended to do when they took up the issue earlier this year.

“My beef is that there was little real input from Whatcom County farmers on the proposal throughout the process,” Lesow confessed. “Still, when the subject is Ag, farmers tend to stick together, and slaughter on Ag could benefit farmers if done within a reasonable set of guidelines.”

Commenting on the scale of operations, Gabriel Claycamp—the original applicant for slaughterhouse expansion—noted a 15,000 sq. ft. facility might process no more than 100 cows per day. Yet, on a comparative scale, a centenary of cows is about the size of your average modest dairy farm in Whatcom County.

“The bill limits the size to about five times what other communities have found necessary,” former Bellingham City Council member Tip Johnson noted in comments to council. “One such facility might slaughter 75,000 chickens per day and require 50 to 60 acres of factory chicken house or untold acres of pasture raised broilers to meet the one half local rule. This could transform rural Whatcom County for some of the worst jobs in the world in an industry with one of the worst environmental reputations.”

“We’re not that stupid up here,” Ken Mann complained of public comments at last week’s meeting that council’s proposed ordinance ripped open the county to slaughterhouse rules. They were, he said, reasonably trying to meet an agriculture need and a market demand.

Council President Kathy Kershner agreed, declaring “some of the arguments that we’ve heard tonight border on ridiculous.

“The sky won’t fall on Whatcom County if council permits a slaughtering facility on ag land,” Henny Penny clucked to the turkeys lurking in the audience.

No, the council isn’t that stupid. But your planning commission is that stupid, made stupid by council’s own hand-picked defiant appointments; and their benchmark invites arguments bordering on the ridiculous in response to the ridiculous, hyperbole to match hyperbole.

Meanwhile, Einsteins on Whatcom County Council do the same work over and over again, expecting a different result.

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