Supervisors respond to opposition to grain elevator
Community members at the Jefferson County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday offered arguments against Heartland Co-op building a grain storage facility at Nutmeg Avenue and Highway 34.
Several speakers stressed health issues with genetically modified organism grain dust, costs to taxpayers for road upgrades, a vote/referendum for bonding to pay for road upgrades, increased semi-truck traffic and one person mentioned the possibility of grain dust fires.
GMO grain dust concerns
Jeffrey Smith, founder of The Institute for Responsible Technology headquartered in Fairfield, spoke about genetically modified grains. He is an author and world leader in educating policy makers and the public about genetically modified foods and crops, according to the IRT’s website.
Most crops are GMO with Roundup Ready and people living near farms and grain elevators have already been breathing the dust, said Smith
“Roundup Ready contains an endocrine destructor. It promotes breast cancer and is connected to a list of diseases,” said Smith. “Roundup Ready is an antibiotic that kills good bacteria and leads to higher incidents of mold in grain.”
Smith also described Bt as a toxin. It produces holes in insects’ stomachs that feed on crops, killing the pests. He said it is feasible Bt corn dust also is harmful to humans.
“A 2012 study shows Bt corn pokes holes in human cells and provokes allergies,” said Smith.
“No governmental body is doing studies on GMO, no one is protecting us,” said Smith. “It comes down to the political body and the courts. I’m asking if this entire discussion can be postponed until a study is done with regular monitoring.”
Supervisor Lee Dimmitt asked what unbiased entity Smith would recommend do the study.
“And who will pay for the study?” said Dimmitt.
Smith said those who want to site the grain elevator on the edge of Fairfield could pay for the study.
Mark Cope identified himself as a 31-year resident of Fairfield from generations of farmers and certified as a state-licensed asbestos/environmental/quality-air sampler.
“I understand about economic development,” he said. “I also understand the dust pollution potential from grain elevators. The particulates are in the air and we can breathe them in. I’m asking the supervisors to seriously consider an environmental impact study before [approving] any large installation as this.”
Jo Ann Crouch said she’s lived in Fairfield since 1983. She described her husband’s health being affected by Agent Orange in Vietnam.
“We need to be really careful with herbicides,” she said. “Careful research is needed. I support Jeff [Smith] in having a study.”
Susan Striker said she’s lived in the area since 1985. She summed up most of the speakers’ remarks.
“I admit I’m ignorant about how this process works,” she said. “Where are you at now? If we can do some research, how do we do that? And if it’s not healthy, how can we stop it?”
Supervisor chairman Dick Reed said that from what he understands, grain storage and elevator operations are more environmentally friendly than they used to be.
“We’ll put it on an agenda — do we want a study and how to do that — and the three of us [board of supervisor members] have to discuss it and decide,” said Reed. “We’re in the process, and the next thing is to look at a financial advisor’s guidance.”
The board of supervisors approved on March 24 hiring financial consultant Jeff Heil to guide the board on the Heartland Co-op project.
After the meeting, Dimmitt said the community needs to understand reality.
“Reiff Grain & Feed on Highway 1 just north of the Maharishi University of Management campus has been in business a long time,” said Dimmitt. “It accepts GMO grains and uses old technology. That elevator even grinds the grains to make feed. Our community has had grain dust a long time.
“Heartland Co-op will be building a facility using newer technology,” said Dimmitt. “Grain trucks will unload grain underground with vacuums and filters to handle grain dust. Heartland won’t be grinding any grain. It will accept grain from farmers, store it, and ship it out by rail.
“I realize today’s audience was passionate, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the issue. I feel very strongly about our farming families who have been farming here 100 to 150 years,” said Dimmitt.
Roads, bonds and taxes
Marcia Hansen, who has attended the past two supervisors meetings to learn more about the proposed grain elevator facility, said Monday she would like a road impact study as well as a health study.
“I’m not an expert and I’d like to know these things before it’s built,” she said. “I know Nutmeg Avenue needs paved. And I respect our farming community and families in the county. I want farmers to make money.
“But we don’t know the long-range road maintenance costs,” said Hansen. “We don’t know if the railroad will pay for a new bridge/underpass on Nutmeg Avenue. We don’t know the lifestyle impact this could have on the community.”
Hansen said in the previous supervisors meetings that she’d heard about Farm to Market road funds and about installing a stoplight for traffic control at the one-lane underpass.
“Use the funding for other things and other programs,” she said. “I’m sure Adam [Plagge, Fairfield Economic Development Association director] can spend time coming up with other projects that need funding.
“I consider the Leahys’ llamas a cherished landmark,” said Hansen. “I think we can find many ways to make urban development a win-win situation.”
Jeananne Robins, who also was at the third consecutive supervisors meeting, asked about a county referendum on bonding.
“If the board decides to bond for roads, there’s always a public hearing and a public notice published before the hearing,” said Reed. “But we don’t have to have the public vote for that type of bond.”
Dimmitt said audience members were speaking incorrectly about the county’s role in Heartland Co-op’s project.
“We’re not talking about bonding for anything,” said Dimmitt. “Heartland is paying for road paving through a Tax Increment Financing district. It’s taken this much time [three months] to get estimates of property values.
“The county will capture Heartland Co-op’s property taxes and only Heartland will pay to pave Nutmeg Avenue and add a traffic light at the underpass,” said Dimmitt. “We’re not talking about bonding at all.”
Robins asked if there is no bond, and if the supervisors decide to go forward, would there be a public vote, or would the community have the right to petition a vote.
“Heartland can do anything it wants; Jefferson County has no zoning or building laws,” said Reed. “The only thing the county controls is if we offer Heartland incentives or not to build here.”
Ed Hipp said he did not fully understand a TIF district.
“You said Heartland is going to pay for roads, and the county is going to take Heartland’s taxes to pay for roads,” said Hipp.
Reed said the property taxes the county would capture from the TIF district is new tax money the county wouldn’t have if Heartland didn’t build.
“It’s new tax revenue,” said Dimmitt. “If we do nothing, regardless if Heartland Co-op locates here, we’d have to use some of all property owners’ taxes to do the roads.
“We have looked for other funding sources for road maintenance,” said Dimmitt. “We’ve looked at federal and state sources. If Heartland locates here, we capture new property taxes for paving Nutmeg Avenue. If Heartland doesn’t locate here, we won’t have those taxes. We can’t use TIF for any other projects, just the project that generates it.
“We haven’t agreed or contracted yet. We’ve only signed a memorandum of understanding with Heartland,” said Dimmitt. “It included a discussion about rebating Heartland’s excess taxes.
“Our best estimate of annual property taxes [generated on the buildings Heartland will construct] is $281,000,” said Dimmitt. “An annual payment to pay back for road improvements — solely paid with these Heartland taxes, no residential property owners will be on the hook — would be $251,920. That leaves about $30,000 annually we could rebate back to Heartland Co-op as an incentive, or not.
“We are not capturing property taxes on the 162 acres already there. This is about only taking the property taxes on facilities built on the ground in the 10 acres Heartland plans to use. The remaining 150 acres will remain in row crops,” said Dimmitt.
The supervisors previously have discussed a 10-year TIF and rebating excess taxes, after the roads have been paid for, from one to 10 years. The board is waiting for guidance from the financial advisor.
Hipp said if Heartland’s taxes are used for roads, it’s like a subsidy because it has economic value.
“If you’re going to do that, be careful it’s something the whole community supports,” said Hipp.
Crystal Castle said she likes the idea of having better roads and attracting other businesses to Fairfield.
“But after the TIF goes away, how do you sustain road maintenance?” she asked.
Doug Greeson said for all the questions the audience was asking about a TIF to do the roads, the public expressed little concern when a TIF was used for county roads for Maharishi Vedic City.
“Were these concerns around then?” he asked.
Audience members said semi-trucks on those roads were not an issue, and many people spoke at the same time, interrupting Greeson, leading him to walk out of the meeting.
Harley Carter said the county will have to maintain roads.
“Doing business with Reiff Grain, the money stays in the community,” said Carter. “If we invest in this out-of-town business, the money goes out of town. Always favor local business over national; do the economics.”
Heartland Co-op has its administrative offices in West Des Moines and owns 52 Iowa locations with grain facilities.
A woman named Sandy said she’s a resident of Abundance EcoVillage. She wanted to know if Nutmeg Avenue would be paved first or the grain elevator built first.
“Heartland Co-op would like to break ground in June,” said Dimmitt. “We haven’t made a decision.
“Keep in mind, our producers here are all local, too, and have helped grow the community,” said Dimmitt. “They pay property taxes. Some producers haul grain outside the county and say they’d use Heartland instead.”
Alice Stubbs said she’s been a farmer for 20 years and moved to this area 2.5 years ago.
“For the money coming in, I’d rather drive on pot-holed roads than have Heartland build its elevator,” said Stubbs.
Another person said he was trying to figure out why anyone would want the grain elevator in Fairfield.
“Farmers get a transportation break, but I see no other benefits,” he said. “What will the facility look like? What will it smell like? What will it sound like? These are all questions for Heartland, which should foot the bill for environmental studies and roads. I understand a semi causes as much wear and tear on roads as 9,600 cars. Is that worth it to give farmers a break?”
Someone else said it was a question of the general direction the community wants to grow toward, and asked if a grain elevator was the best addition for the community.
Reed said everyone talked as if the supervisors have the authority to stop the project.
“We have authority to offer financial incentives,” he said.
“The Leahys live out in the county.When they came here, no zoning laws prevented them from building how they wanted,” said Reed. “They could bring in a herd of elephants if they wanted to.”
Christy Welty said she’d studied transportation issues and the county has more authority.
“The roads are under your control,” Welty said. “If a road is not improved, the county decides that. It also decides how much wear and tear is allowed.”
Thomas Gates asked what were the supervisors willing to do regarding concerns voiced at the meeting.
“What we have planned is go through the process we have,” said Reed. “A lot won’t be done by June 1. I’ve personally spoken with Heartland’s two CEOs in December when they first came here to tell us what they wanted to do. FEDA has had more contact with Heartland. I know they read the papers and will probably be concerned. You have a powerful network here today. Last week, we had a roomful of farmers supporting the plan.
“We’ve talked multiple times that the county is un-zoned. We wouldn’t have Cambridge located where it is if we had zoning,” said Reed. “Overland wouldn’t have located there if there was zoning. Back in 1995, we tried to put county zoning on the table for a vote. Supervisors received threats.
“I appreciate your concerns, but there is always two sides, always advantages and disadvantages,” said Reed. “Keep this in perspective. I think most people want us to move forward rather than stop something.”
Someone asked why no one from Heartland Co-op was at the meeting.
“They realized we didn’t have any agenda items for this meeting about Heartland that we could take action on today,” said Dimmitt.
At the beginning of the pubic comments, Reed read through the meeting agenda to the crowd. One item said, “Consider resolution supporting Heartland Co-op’s IDEA application.”
The Iowa Department of Economic Authority application wasn’t ready yet, Reed had explained.
After the bulk of the crowd dispersed, Jack Ritz had a public comment in the supervisors’ boardroom.
“I’ve been around elevators since I was 5 or 6 years old,” he said. “The guys I knew who run elevators have lived into their 90s. We need to look at Heartland as an economic development. We need this in our county.”