FREMONT — The Steuben County Board of Zoning Appeals granted a special exception to a mega dairy on a 4-1 vote at a special meeting Monday night.
NEI Dairy at 5409 E. Ray Clark Road, Fremont wants to expand its confined feeding operation in an agricultural zoning district on 39 acres in Scott Township.
The permit was approved earlier by the Steuben County Plan Commission and forwarded to the BZA. The plan commission found the petition wouldn’t affect the county’s master plan.
Leon Weaver, of Montpelier, Ohio, the owner of NEI Dairy, had an Indiana Department of Environmental Management permit for a 900-cow facility. He has received permission for a 750-cow expansion, bringing his herd to 1,650 dairy cows. The IDEM permits put NEI in National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System compliance.
He told a large crowd at the near-three hour meeting, “I can assure you NEI has many of your values. The only question is how to do it safely.”
Before the vote, Weaver noted the economic impact of his dairy saying it would create 20 jobs, 14 full-time positions and more than $3 million economic impact to Steuben County annually.
His dairy is part of a larger family of 30 producers with Kroger being its biggest customer. In addition, Weaver noted he will soon have a protein whey product marketed by Coca Cola.
Weaver talked to neighbors in the Scott Township area and said three themes jumped out:
• past mistakes by prior operators about manure in the fields;
• ground and surface water;
“We’re not an American Gothic farm,” Weaver said. “It’s deciding on the best management of the existing CAFO.”
When BZA members asked him about dust control, Weaver said he’s prepared to oil and water roads.
“We will minimized the use of Ray Clark Road. It may cost us more. Safety is a huge issue … I will work with the county on how to enforce 25 mph on all our vehicles,” he said.
Weaver said his operations would produce hay silage in May, June, July and August twice a month and he would communicate to neighbors when it is being done.
He also noted he has an odor control plan that includes the entire production area and fields. “I will agree to work with you on the best science I can afford (on dust and odor plans),” Weaver said.
Bill Schmidt, a BZA member, asked Weaver what drove him to make an investment with adding technology and adding more cows on the property. Weaver replied it was the location.
People speaking for granting Weaver the special exception noted his success with running Bridgewater Dairy. Another noted the dairy’s economic impact in keeping people employed.
Those speaking against allowing the exception said they had concerns about the effects on water, especially with E.coli and property values.
An attorney for neighboring Angola Motor Speedway asked for NEI operations to cease on weekends and holidays. Weaver said it was a reasonable request and said he would comply whenever possible.
In making the motion to grant the exception, Schmidt suggested a time frame to monitor it. The exception was granted to review it within 12 months. It will include a written dust control plan, an odor control plan and have a 25 mph speed limit on trucks. “If it’s not consistent, we will withdraw the petition,” Schmidt said.
NEI purchased the farm out of bankruptcy. It was previously operated as Walnut Grove Dairy then as the DeJong Dairy.
The dairy operation includes additional free stall buildings and facilities to remove, store and recycle manure. The existing farm had a concrete pit for waste storage, storm water and process waste water, silage storage and a synthetic-lined earthen manure storage lagoon.