MADISON — The residents of the unincorporated town of Warnerville and the surrounding area spoke up and a zoning setback has been maintained — for now.
On Tuesday morning following a public hearing here, the Madison County board of commissioners voted 3-0 to have the Madison County Joint Planning Commission study the issue of what might be a proper minimum distance bulk fertilizer should be stored from residences.
The joint planning commission could tackle the issue as early as mid-July and then make a recommendation to the county board.
The distance will have a great impact on whether a chemical company builds a $5 million fertilizer plant and warehouse near Warnerville in the central part of Madison County.
Warnerville, which is about six miles south of Norfolk, was a railroad stop for decades and had its own school until six years ago. Along with several houses, there is a higher concentration of people living in the area than most rural areas of the county.
But railroad tracks still are used, and their presence is a key part of why the site was chosen by Helena Chemical Co. as a possible site for its fertilizer plant and warehouse.
Tuesday’s hearing was to consider whether to amend the Madison County Zoning and Subdivision Regulations specifically by changing the setbacks for “bulk storage and/or manufacture of fertilizer” from 1,320 feet to 300 feet in “AGI”-Intensive Agriculture and “AG2”-General Agriculture districts.
During a public hearing that lasted nearly one hour and 15 minutes, seven people spoke in favor of the reduced setback and eight people spoke against it.
Helena seeks to construct a fertilizer plant about five miles south and one mile west of the intersection of highways 81 and 275 along railroad tracks owned by Union Pacific and operated by the Northeast Nebraska Railroad.
To do so, it would need a significantly smaller setback than 1,320 feet from a residence.
Courtney Klein-Faust, the city’s economic development director, said the 1,320 setback is significantly higher than the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and Nebraska Department of Health & Human Services require, which both have 100-foot setbacks.
“Except for Knox County, we (Madison County) are more than 1,000 feet more than any other county around us,” Klein-Faust said.
Ron Schmidt of Humphrey said many communities in the area have fertilizer plants. The plants at one time were located at the edge of towns, but now houses have been built up around them, Schmidt said.
Dennis Houston, president of the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce, said a vote for the change in setbacks is a vote for jobs and economic vitality.
Houston said the 650 area businesses and 15,000 plus employees they represent in the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce support the change in the setback distance.
David Domina of Omaha, an attorney representing area residents against the change, said the 1,320 feet is not an arbitrary number but represents one-fourth of a mile.
One-fourth of a mile is a distance that evolved over time because neighbors generally felt safe or at ease with one another and their activities in rural areas, he said.
In some of the other counties that have smaller setbacks, all it takes is one neighbor within the setback to vote against a conditional-use permit for it not to be approved, Domina said.
In other words, one person has “veto power,” so it would make sense that the setbacks there would be much less or nonexistent, Domina said.
Stacy Anderson of the Warnerville area, who lives within one-fourth of a mile of the proposed site, said the current setback distance should be maintained.
She disagreed with some previous comments that keeping the setback that distance was unnecessary or unfriendly to business.
“Is Madison County open for business?” Anderson asked. “Absolutely, but we have standards.”
Michelle Fickler said she lives on 21 acres in the Warnerville area. The zoning law was in place so she and her husband could plan on living there, and now they have five young sons, she said.
“The 1,320 (feet) setback is law,” she said. “And it’s an important law.”
Her sons like to play outside, including one boy who had cancer. Having the fertilizer plant that close and having him breathe the air threatens his life, Fickler said.
An estimated 100 people attended the hearing. Because of the size of the crowd, the hearing was moved from the commissioners’ meeting room to a district courtroom.
At no point did commissioners ever vote on changing the setback from 1,320 feet to 300 feet, which also was voted down by the joint planning commission. The county board simply voted to have it studied further by the joint planning commission.
Jerry McCallum, a county board member, said he found the testimony and comments before the meeting to be encouraging.
In his nearly 16 years as commissioner, McCallum said he doesn’t recall hearing so much support for the county’s zoning regulations.