Less attractive than even the most sprawling subdivision of cookie-cutter homes, factory farms have so far maintained a safe 60-mile distance from Ann Arbor. These farms cram thousands of livestock in appalling conditions and pollute both the air and water of the communities they border. The Ann Arbor City Council faced the tough decision last week between striking a ban on factory farms from the Greenbelt ordinance or losing out on millions of dollars in state and federal funding. City Council voted 10-1 in favor of the money, opening a dangerous loophole that could undermine the Greenbelt’s effectiveness.
Federal and state money will enable the city to maximize its preservation of farmland, but there is now a chance that a factory farm could arrive on Ann Arbor’s Greenbelt. City Council must immediately find an alternative way to keep out factory farms while working within the provisions of these federal and state grants.
The presence of just one factory farm would jeopardize Ann Arbor’s ability to preserve its open spaces and protect its source water from contamination. Factory farms produce 130 times more waste than the nation’s 296 million citizens, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. These farms displace the small, family-owned farms the Greenbelt seeks to preserve and instead dominate the landscape with unsightly, prison-like sheds. Factory farms typically store their waste in uncovered, man-made lagoons that can be several acres in size, and their contents often contaminate the surrounding water and air. The federal government has failed to adequately regulate their waste production and management – the Environmental Protection Agency offered factory farms a four-year immunity from air-pollution controls last January in exchange for participating in an air-pollution study.
Ann Arbor’s high property values have made factory farming – which requires large tracts of land – uneconomical. As the city faces only a small likelihood of becoming home to a factory farm, the ban on such farms was both symbolic and pragmatic. Striking this limitation without enacting quick countermeasures, however, would put the city’s commitment to environmental preservation and responsible land use in question. Furthermore, because the city will hold development rights to land within the Greenbelt, land values could drop low enough in the long term to attract factory farms to Ann Arbor.
It may require some creativity, but the Council can comply with the state and federal fund-matching provisions while demonstrating its determination to prevent the construction of a factory farm in the Greenbelt. City Council and Greenbelt Advisory Commission member Bob Johnson (D-Ward 1), for instance, suggested the city restrict the proportion of land that can be covered with buildings or limit the size of buildings on farms. Because factory farms require large enclosures, either plan would make the construction of a factory farm unfeasible, yet could allow the city to remain eligible for government funding.
City Council has faced numerous delays over the past two years in carrying out the mandate of Ann Arbor voters, and it should complete the first Greenbelt purchase as quickly as possible. While finalizing this acquisition, City Council must not ignore the loophole the lifting of the factory farm ban creates. Residents must pressure City Council to find an alternative means to remove even the remotest chance that a factory farm could be built on Greenbelt land. Despite the low likelihood that Ann Arbor will one day become home to a factory farm, City Council must remain vigilant and take prompt action to ensure that Ann Arbor remains factory-farm-free.