CAFO verdict uphold's county's authority
Martin Romo cleans the milk parlor, where cows are milked, at the Vanderham Dairy near Jerome on Tuesday. The Idaho Supreme Court on Monday upheld a Gooding County confined-animal feeding operation ordinance, reinforcing the authority of Idaho counties to impose their own local CAFO regulations. (ASHLEY SMITH/Times-News)

Monday was an important day for Idaho counties.

When the Idaho Supreme Court upheld Gooding County’s regulations for confined-animal feeding operations, it confirmed the right of counties across the state to regulate water-quality and other concerns beyond what state officials can do.

“It does give us comfort to know that we can continue to enforce what we’ve got right now,” said Paul Aston, director of Minidoka County Community Development.

The court concluded that Gooding County wasn’t pre-empted from regulating water quality within its borders and that a cap on the number of animal units per acre did not violate CAFO owners’ due-process rights. (Pro-tem Justice Linda Copple Trout dissented from the otherwise-unanimous decision on the last point.) Animal units are a measurement intended to equalize cattle, pigs and other animals in county codes.

Though the case focused on Gooding County, many of its issues pertained to the rest of Magic Valley. Cassia County also has restrictions on how many animal units are allowed per acre, for example, and officials have debated including limits in Jerome County’s long-pending ordinance revision as well. A Planning and Zoning Commission hearing on the Jerome revision is planned for Feb. 25.

Counties in the Magic Valley, Idaho’s dairy hot spot, have been watching the case — including Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning Administrator Rick Dunn, who noted his county’s groundwater has the highest nitrate levels in the state.

“At some point you have to deal with that,” he said.

Monday’s decision gives his county a firmer footing to address those concerns, he said. Both he and Aston also said the decision may reinforce county planning authority for more than just CAFOs.

The livestock industry was disappointed by Monday’s ruling. Idaho Dairymen’s Association Executive Director Bob Naerebout said Tuesday that his organization will discuss whether it’s worth pursuing a rehearing before the Supreme Court — a tricky matter that would require significant new arguments from the plaintiffs. He noted that dairymen in Gooding County haven’t really run into the ordinance lately because low dairy prices make it hard to expand anyway.

On Monday, Naerebout said his group will promote statutory changes that make it clear who regulates dairies and that the ordinance shows the importance of staying involved in local elections.

Kenny Vanderham, a dairy owner in Jerome County, has no plans to expand his operation but still harbors concerns about growing government supervision.

“We’re so regulated that we can hardly move,” he said, listing the various state agencies that monitor CAFO issues and the private groups that criticize industry practices.

Dairymen are certainly driven by economics, but also realize they’re part of a larger community, he said. And the state’s strapped budget would benefit, he believes, “if they would just let us do what we need to do and be good stewards at the same time.”

Though assured of their authority, Magic Valley counties aren’t likely in a rush to redo all their CAFO rules. Dunn, who’s in the middle of a comprehensive rewrite of other Twin Falls County zoning codes, emphasized that any future changes would be a political decision driven by people higher up than him.

“I believe we have a very good ordinance,” he said, adding that his department has still approved more CAFOs than it’s rejected over the past couple of years. Only a small minority of CAFO operators usually cause the county problems, he said.

“The ag industry is the lifeblood of this area, and you don’t want to restrict it any more than you have to. But if they won’t police themselves, somebody has to.”

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