Agriculture board sets new poultry house setback rules

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The poultry house setback rules, which must now get the approval of the Legislature and governor before going into effect in September, initially came before the board in December. CLIFTON ADCOCK/The Frontier

The Oklahoma Board of Agriculture approved a new set of rules on Tuesday that would restrict new or expanding poultry operations from locating within certain distances of homes, though the rules are less strict than those that had been presented for public comment earlier.

The poultry house setback rules, which must now get the approval of the Legislature and governor before going into effect in September, initially came before the board in December. But then-Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese withdrew the proposed rules before a board vote, saying it would be up to lawmakers, rather than the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry to craft poultry house setback requirements.

However, though the board did not vote on the rules at that time and stakeholders were told the decision would be up to the Legislature, the ODAFF never officially withdrew the proposed rules from rulemaking consideration, and opened public comment on them from Jan. 2 to Feb. 5.

The moratorium on ODAFF accepting or processing applications for new or expanding poultry operations with more than 30,000 birds, adopted by the board in December, remains in place until May 31, the end of the legislative session.

“There are currently no regulations in place on any poultry housing locations; however, we recognize the importance of poultry in Oklahoma and also recognize the voices of concerned Oklahomans,” said Blayne Arthur, Commissioner of Oklahoma Agriculture and President of the State Board of Agriculture. “These setbacks will help enhance the living conditions of citizens and also will continue to support the poultry industry, which has a large economic impact on our state.”

The rules, approved by a 3-2 vote by the board on Tuesday, had significant differences between those that had been put out by ODAFF for public comment. Originally, the rules stated that poultry operations with 30,000 or more birds would be restricted from locating within:

  • a quarter mile (1,320 feet) of occupied residences
  • a half mile (2,640 feet) from schools and city limits
  • 150 feet from public highways or property lines
  • 200 feet from streams
  • 100 feet from private wells
  • 500 feet from public wells and outside the 100-year floodplain

The rules approved Tuesday state that poultry operations with 150,000 or fewer birds would be restricted from locating within 500 feet of an occupied residence, while those with more than 150,000 birds would be restricted from locating within 1,000 feet of an occupied dwelling. New and expanding poultry operations would also be restricted from locating:

  • Within 1,000 feet of a school or city limits
  • 150 feet from public highways or property lines
  • 200 feet from a stream
  • 100 feet from private wells
  • 500 feet from public wells

The rule also eliminated the proposed prohibition on locating a poultry operation within a floodplain.

Two bills addressing poultry house setbacks are also currently making their way through the Legislature. House Bill 2534 by Rep. Meloyde Blancett, D-Tulsa, would restrict poultry operations with more than 30,000 birds from locating a half mile (2,640 feet) from occupied residences, schools, cemeteries, parks or city limits; 500 feet from public highways or property lines; a quarter mile (1,320 feet) from a stream; and 1,000 feet from water wells. Senate Bill 873 by Sen. Casey Murdock would impose a 500-foot setback requirement on poultry operations with 100,000 birds or more.

For more than a year, residents of far eastern Oklahoma have been protesting a boom in new poultry operations in the area, especially in Delaware County. The new chicken farms are the result of Arkansas chicken processor Simmons Foods expanding one of its major processing facilities across the border Gentry, Arkansas.

Nearby residents say the new poultry operations often pop up with little to no warning and have been responsible for water wells running dry, increased tractor trailer traffic on county roads, decreased water and air quality and a nearly ever-present smell of chicken manure hanging in the air.

In October, the Board of Agriculture put a temporary suspension on accepting or processing new applications for poultry operations, following recommendations by the Coordinating Council on Poultry Growth.

Voting in favor of the new rules on Tuesday were Arthur and board members Ed Hurliman and Britt Hilton. Board members Jay Franklin and Karen Krehbiel Dodson voted against the rules.

After the meeting Franklin declined to explain why he voted against the rules.

“The issue is just too complex to lay out in a news article,” Franklin said.

A media release from the ODAFF after the meeting stated that both board members voted against the rules because they do not believe in requiring any setbacks to poultry operations, which it could lead to setback requirements for other agricultural industries in the future.

Arthur said the rules passed on Tuesday had been amended before the meeting based on public comments the department received. Arthur said she did not have a breakdown on the number of public comments that had been submitted that supported or opposed the rules prior to the amendments.

Allowing the Legislature alone to handle the setback requirements was a non-binding decision made by a previous administration, said Arthur, who was appointed last month by Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“That was under a different administration and a different cabinet secretary,” Arthur said. “A permanent rule was filed prior to my arrival here at the department. In order for that rule to move through the process, it had to be addressed here at out February board meeting.”

Pam Kingfisher, head of the Green Country Guardians group that has opposed the expansion of poultry operations in eastern Oklahoma, said the amendments to the rules passed on Tuesday were done under Arthur’s watch, not Reese’s.

“Here in Green Country, they (the Department of Agriculture) have a big credibility problem,” Kingfisher said.

“It’s pretty disappointing because most of the citizens who commented by the Feb. 5 deadline wanted stricter setbacks. As citizens, we didn’t see these (amended rules) until last Friday.”

Kingfisher said her group will continue to push for Blancett’s bill to be heard in committee.

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Clifton Adcock

Senior Staff Writer

A veteran investigative reporter who has covered eastern Oklahoma for more than 15 years, Clifton joined The Frontier in April 2017. A native of southeastern Oklahoma, he has covered numerous issues from criminal justice to politics for publications including the Tulsa World, the Oklahoma Gazette, and Oklahoma Watch. Clifton holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oklahoma. Clifton can be reached at clifton@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @cliftonhowze
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