To the delight of Powell Gardens, the proposed expansion of a cattle feedlot and slaughter operation east of Lone Jack was rejected Monday by the Missouri Clean Water Commission, reversing earlier state approval.
The Valley Oaks Steak Co. had applied for a permit to grow its operations from fewer than 999 beef cattle on site to as many as 6,999. While some viewed the plans as a boost for locally grown food options in the Kansas City region, neighboring residents and supporters of Powell Gardens — three miles to the east — waged an intense resistance.
“I’m utterly elated,” said the gardens’ chief executive Tabitha Schmidt. “This ruling is huge for us.”
After coming back from a closed session, members of the commission gave little detail on how they reached their decisions as they voted on the project’s fate.
Still, the regulatory back-and-forth over the proposal may not be over, as Powell Gardens attorney Aimee Davenport said Valley Oaks could pursue appellate court options. The company already has another permit application in the works, filed earlier this month.
“So we start the process all over again,” said Tasha Stephens, director of a group of Lone Jack neighbors formed to resist the expansion.
A Valley Oaks representative on Monday said the company would not be issuing immediate comment on the commission’s ruling.
After learning of the company’s plans in February, more than 1,000 people wrote letters of concern to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources during a public comment period. The department nonetheless approved a permit in June.
An appeal of that decision led to a state administrative review panel in late October temporarily halting the company’s plans pending a final ruling by the Clean Water Commission. Valley Oaks at the time issued a statement saying panel’s action was “contrary to the law” and focused on “minor, technical issues” rather than the plant’s environmental impact.
Monday morning’s hearing found Valley Oaks and the Missouri Attorney General’s office arguing against Powell Gardens and the Lone Jack neighbors.
Valley Oaks attorney Jennifer Griffin argued neighbors’ objections are “based on speculative and unfounded concerns about the operation of the facility and the potential future violations, an incomplete first round of neighbor notice letters, and a typo in the application’s name.”
Opponents of the feedlot filled many seats in the room, cheering on comments they thought supported their cause and murmuring “no” during Griffin’s presentation.
A residential district on the rim of the feedlot includes houses valued at $400,000 or more. Homeowners displayed yard signs objecting to the “CAFO,” short for concentrated animal feeding operation.
The steak company opened its facility on the far west end of Johnson County in 2006. Executives of Valley Oaks and the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association said expansion would add dozens of jobs to the area and benefit nearby producers of livestock and grain.
Valley Oaks envisioned what it pledged would be among the most environmentally friendly cattle operations in the nation. With steers confined within walls of a giant barn, their manure would be blended with wood chips and stored in a warehouse to be processed into fertilizer.
Powell Gardens and other opponents said the expansion would threaten water quality, drive down home values and put the botanical center at risk of disease-spreading pests.
A consulting firm hired by donors to the protest group calculated the feedlot would daily generate more than 1,500 tons of feces, urine and other foul matter.
Powell Gardens attorney Chuck Hatfield said Monday “there’s not enough room for the manure” an expanded feedlot would produce.
“I’m told by experts that if you took a football field from end to end, all the way across, the manure would stack 38 feet high,” said Powell Gardens attorney Chuck Hatfield. “That’s every single year.”
But Griffin said the natural resources department “properly concluded that Valley Oaks had ample manure storage capacity based on the law and the evidence.”
She declined to talk to a reporter after the commission’s decision.
Duane Mason, a landowner in the area, was pleased: “I’m happy to hear that they pulled the permit, revoked it, canceled it, whatever you want to say ... I’m tickled to death about that.”