Can Powell Gardens fight a CAFO and win?

Situated on nearly 1,000 acres of land 40 miles southeast of downtown, Powell Gardens is one of the Kansas City area’s most beautiful and serene spots. The botanical garden boasts thousands of plant varieties, a nature trail, an indoor conservatory. It hosts weddings, field trips, galas, and other special events. Over 100,000 people visit the “living museum” every year.

A big part of Powell Gardens’ appeal is its remote location, way out off Highway 50, in Kingsville, Missouri. This asset, though, is lately in danger of souring into a liability.

In February, Powell Gardens leadership, as well as many other area residents, were stunned to learn that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was on the verge of approving a permit that would allow 6,999 beef cows on a property in nearby Lone Jack.

The cows won’t be the grazing-in-a-field type. They’ll instead be held in six massive barns owned by Valley Oaks Steak Company. They are expected to produce about 420,000 pounds of poop and urine each day as they are fattened for the slaughterhouse (which is also located on the property).

Several neighborhoods surround the farm. Estimates range from 500 to 880 homes lie within a three-miles radius of Valley Oaks. Powell Gardens is about three miles east of Valley Oaks, and Lone Jack is three miles west. Lee’s Summit and Lake Lotawana are 10-15 minutes away.

The proposed Valley Oaks operation will be unique in that few, if any, factory farms and slaughterhouses have been plunked down amidst a fast-growing residential area — much less near an institution as renowned as Powell Gardens.

“This is highly unusual to put this right in the middle of a growing area,” says Tabitha Schmidt, president and CEO of Powell Gardens. “You wouldn’t put this next to the Nelson [Atkins Museum of Art].”

Schmidt continues: “This will affect so many lives. Many retirees have built here. The whole community is dumbfounded. Why here?”

David Ward, the owner of Valley Oaks, started his Lone Jack-based business a little over a year ago with several hundred cows, a small slaughterhouse, and a market on the property to sell specialty beef. The Valley Oaks website says the farm produces “locally grown beef that has a one of a kind flavor” and is available in local stores.

Ward, who also runs a real estate business in Grain Valley, did not respond to calls from The Pitch. However, on Feb. 8, at a “Thank a Farmer Week” chili luncheon near Harrisonville, Jake Huddleston, Valley Oaks’ plant manager, discussed the stench that will emanate from the operation, according to Warrensburg’s local paper, the Daily Star Journal.

“It’s a necessary evil,” Huddleston told the group, according to the article. “We’re trying to take care of it as best we can to keep it to a minimum.

Huddleston also said that the hides, offal and bones from butchered cows will be sold, and wastewater from that process “will be contained in lagoons that allow it to evaporate.”

Concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFOs, are unpleasant by nature and often controversial. Scientific studies show that wind can carry the stench from factory farm waste five to six miles. Other studies, one as recent as January, have found that nearby property values can plummet as much as 50 percent.

Multiple elected officials have known since last August about Valley Oaks’ plans to build a CAFO in the area. By the time local residents learned about the proposal, the application was in its final stages. Valley Oaks was already building barns, some of which are already completed.

But residents have responded quickly. They have organized the Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Farming, and their Facebook page, “Say No To Valley Oaks,” has more than 700 members. Residents have since submitted more than 600 comments to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources regarding the Valley Oaks expansion. A cursory review of the comments shows little to no support for the CAFO.

“It will be a devastation to our air quality, our water quality, and there will be health issues,” says Karen Lux, one of the lead organizers of Lone Jack Neighbors for Responsible Farming. “There is a ton of concern. Affecting me and everyone will be the devaluation of our properties that so many of us have worked for our entire lives. For one entity to be able to come in and devalue our property like this is unheard of.”

Leo Richard Dammerman, who is 75, built his 2,500-square-foot retirement home in 2008. The home sits near a pristine lake in the Rock Lake Village subdivision and is just over a mile northeast from Valley Oaks Steak Company. Home prices in that subdivision range from $200,000 to $1.5 million. His house is assessed at $241,000, according to the Johnson County Assessor’s Office.

“This is basically our retirement home,” Dammerman says. “If we get that smell from 6,999 cattle, it is going to be horrendous. Our property values are going to desperately take a hit, 20 to 30 percent. I don’t want to say 40 to 50 percent, but it’s possible.”

Dammerman adds: “To me it seems the politicians are ramrodding this through, and we don’t have a chance.”

Rachel Foley, a local bankruptcy attorney, and her mom, who until recently lived in Phoenix, decided to combine households in the Kansas City area a couple years ago. They spent a year searching for the perfect place and found it in Rock Lake Village. Their home and property is valued at about $350,000.

Foley says the neighborhood is in a bucolic setting with the lake, trees, small family farms dotting the landscape. The neighbors have a great relationship with the local farmers and no intolerable smells emanate from the animals grazing on the hillsides.

“You never have a bad sunrise,” she says. “It’s a slice of heaven on earth, and now that is being destroyed by this CAFO moving in.”

It’s not just residents who are upset with the industrial farm. Traditional farmers are, too — people like Jack Wilkinson, a cattle farmer owns a centennial farm that abuts the CAFO property.

“My family have been farming here for more than a hundred years,” Wilkinson said in a statement. “We are pro-farming and pro-business. But we also believe in good neighbor practices and being responsible landowners. This animal factory violates those values on many levels.”

In Missouri, the odds are quite stacked against Wilkinson and other opponents due to new state laws that make it extremely difficult to fight a CAFO. Laws governing CAFOs favor new businesses, and MDNR officials have never turned down a so-called factory farm permit due to complaints of neighbors.

“DNR says if [the industrial farm owners] fill out the paperwork, [the company is] good to go,” Lux says. “Honestly, that is the truth. There is nothing [MDNR] can do.”

Because the Valley Oaks herd will be allowed to have one cow less than 7,000, the CAFO falls into what is called Class 1B, as opposed to Class 1A. That means MDNR can oversee and inspect the facility for violations of the Clean Water Act. But that’s it.

Clean air pollution laws that govern particulates, bio-aerosols and dust, and public nuisance regulations regarding odors and insects (such as hordes of flies) won’t apply to Valley Oaks. One cow more and those regulations would apply.

“We do recognize that odor and flies are a concern for these facilities, but they fall outside of the clean water laws,” says Jake Faulkner, chief of MDNR’s industrial permits.

Because of staffing levels, inspectors will only visit the Valley Oaks facility once every five years.

Faulkner notes that his agency will also respond to complaints about possible water pollution. But even if wrongdoing is found, bad actors now face little in the way of repercussions.

Several years ago, neighbors of CAFOs, particularly in northern Missouri, were successfully suing owners of big industrial farms for being public nuisances. In one case, in 2010, this resulted in an $11 million jury award.

In response to heavy lobbying by such organizations as the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, though, the state legislature — made up of a majority of Republicans — passed a law severely curtailing the amount of damages a jury can award in these types of cases.

It is possible that, should its permit be awarded, Valley Oaks will prove itself an engaged, responsible neighbor in Lone Jack. Documents obtained by The Pitch, though, show that Ward’s reputation regarding environmental laws and animal treatment is far from sterling.

For one, Valley Oaks’ current permit application has received extensions because of a number of deficiencies including failure to submit engineering reports and water monitoring reports.

In addition, the company was supposed to notify at least 22 residents about the CAFO last August, but those notices were not mailed until Feb. 1, by which time Valley Oaks was already building its barns.

And last year, on Feb. 22, the United States Department of Agriculture suspended the inspection personnel at Valley Oaks for one day because of a violation of the Humane Slaughter Act.

The reason? A USDA inspector discovered a Valley Oaks employee shooting a cow with a revolver.

For humane reasons, cows during the slaughtering process are supposed to be stunned using a captive bolt gun. Then, once they are unconscious, their necks are slit and bled out. On this February day, a USDA inspector heard two gunshots ring out and subsequently found a wounded steer wandering around still “ambulatory and alert.” An employee had shot the cow with a .22 mag revolver instead of using the captive bolt gun.

Autumn Canaday, spokeswoman for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, says the company was issued a correction action and suspension “due to the mis-stunning of livestock.”

Valley Oaks had to provide the government with a corrective plan to inspectors. Canaday says inspectors are continuing to closely monitor “the establishment to ensure that its processes are in compliance with humane handling regulations.”

Since 1986, Ward has been buying property to develop subdivisions and selling land to builders. Here, too, he has run afoul of regulators.

In 2004, a $13,500 civil judgment in Jackson County Circuit Court was assessed against David L. Ward, Randall W. Salle, and Wallee/Ward Investments Inc. for past violations of the Missouri Clean Water Law and Regulations at a construction site.

And in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Ward’s company, Ward Development and Investment, $95,000 because of “an illegal discharge of pollutants associated with an industrial activity into waters of the United States” at its Woodbury Homes of Grain Valley site.

The EPA said the $95,000 civil penalty was for five violations of the Clean Water Act: failure to conduct site inspections, failure to maintain pollution control measures, failure to obtain a permit, failure to implement an adequate stormwater solution prevention plan, and failure to implement appropriate best practices management.

A year later, Ward’s Woodbury Homes of Grain Valley pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of providing a false document to the EPA, according to EPA records and news stories.

The document falsely stated that “Woodbury” had applied for a stormwater permit to develop a subdivision. Ward, the principal owner of Woodbury Homes, paid a $15,000 fine.

Besides Valley Oaks, who supports granting a permit to this CAFO?

That’s a tough one to answer. Presiding Commissioner William Gabel of the Johnson County Commission was the only elected official to return phone calls.

Gabel, who was first elected to the office in 2010, acknowledged that he had received 45 letters in opposition to the CAFO — the most he’s received in eight years as a commissioner. But he also said “there are a lot of people in favor of” the CAFO.

Asked to name a single resident who supported the Valley Oaks expansion in Johnson or Jackson Counties, or more specifically, in Lone Jack or the neighborhoods surrounding the industrial farm, Gabel found himself at a loss. Finally, he said that the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association “strongly supports it.”

Gabel, who lives in Warrensburg, then said that several farmers had “indicated that they would love to have the manure from the CAFO and couldn’t wait to [buy] it.”

When asked for the names of the farmers, Gabel said: “The farmer didn’t leave a name.”

He added: “I’d like to have some [manure] on my lawn.”

Gabel then told a story about when he was a boy and his father made him clean a barn with a manure spreader.

“I thought my dad was being so mean to me,” Gabel said. “Within an hour I didn’t notice the smell. It wasn’t fun work, but I took pride in it. I got to where I appreciated what [my dad] did.”

Gabel evidently prefers his own folksy anecdotes to the scientific concerns of Anthony Arton, Johnson County’s top health administrator. According to a letter on Johnson County Community Health Services letterhead that Arton sent concerned residents Monday, Arton has been expressing CAFO concerns with Gabel and the other two Johnson County commissioners since all the way back in September.

His health concerns include:

    *An increased risk of asthma in children and adults in the surrounding area.

    *An increase in nausea, headaches, brain damage, vomiting/diarrhea and possibly pulmonary edema, which could be life threatening.

    *An increased risk of waste contaminating drinking water resources and increases in the risk of E Coli poisoning and other diseases.

    *A possible risk of confined animals contracting, mutating, or developing new diseases.

On Nov. 2, Arton formally requested the commission start the process to draft a CAFO ordinance “that addresses set-back limits away from city/town limits and school buildings to minimize the negative public health impact from CAFOs.”

Arton noted that 32 other rural Missouri counties have enacted the regulation. The commission decided that Arton, Commissioner Charlie Kavanaugh, and Ward would begin those discussions sometime in March.

But Arton is also quick to manage expectations, given the CAFO-friendly nature of laws enacted by Missouri Republicans.

“There is no guarantee an ordinance if drafted would be passed by the Commissioners,” he writes. “Furthermore, this ordinance will not be able to help your current situation. There is nothing I, nor the County Commissioners can do to prevent, stop, or ban CAFOs in the county.”

For Powell Gardens and others who would rather not suffer potential odors, pollution, and decreased property values, there may be one last shot at defeating the Valley Oaks CAFO.

Valley Oaks is believed to be supplying water to its cows (there are currently somewhere between 600 and 800 on the property) by using a residential water hookup that draws from a nearby water tower. In other words, it’s using the same water supply as an ordinary household.

In January, Valley Oaks used 188,000 gallons of water. In comparison, an average household uses 8,000 to 10,000 gallons monthly.

This arrangement is not feasible if Valley Oaks adds another 6,000 cows. Ron Brockhaus, general manager of Public Water Supply District No. 2., says he told Valley Oaks last week that it can’t use more water from the tower. He says several people have complained about possible water pressure problems.

“They can’t add more cattle” until they resolve the water issue, Brockhaus says. “They have been told they can’t have more volume off that tower due to the supply and demand [by the other residents].”

The company is discussing whether to dam a creek on its property and create a lake, or dig a new waterline from the direction of U.S. Route 50, pulling water from a different water tower, Brockhaus says. It’s unclear how long that might take. But it may buy opponents some time. 

Opponents of the Valley Oaks CAFO also scored a small victory by persuading MDNR to hold a hearing tomorrow — Tuesday, April 3 — so they could make oral arguments regarding their concerns.

Here, too, though, the state seems to be subtly showing its pro-CAFO preference. Residents asked that the meeting be held at Lone Jack High School, which can hold up to 600 people. But MDNR scheduled the meeting to be from 6 to 8 p.m., at the Warrensburg Community Center, about 30 miles away, which can only hold from 120 to 200 people.

Faulkner, the chief of MDNR’s industrial permits, says the decision to hold it in Warrensburg was because Lone Jack High School is in Jackson County and the CAFO is located in Johnson County. No further explanation was given.

Powell Gardens — which recently hired Aimee Davenport, an experienced environmental attorney, as its legal representation — responded by announcing, last week, that it would provide a 55-passenger bus to Warrensburg. It leaves tomorrow at 4:30 p.m.  

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