It may have taken nearly four years of cramming into town-hall meetings, writing letters to anyone with an official title and painting countless "No More Chickens" signs, but residents in Union County's York Township finally appear to have their answer as to whether or not a 6-million-chicken egg farm will be built in their backyards.
The answer is "no."
"I'm absolutely overjoyed that our little community, and Union County, have received a revitalization and a new lease on life," said Michele Davis, owner of Serendipity Stables in West Mansfield.
For years, the 15-acre ranch has provided a place where autistic children can work with specially trained therapy horses. Davis said last week that if the proposed Hi-Q Products egg facility had been approved, it would have literally surrounded Serendipity Stables.
"That would have destroyed everything I've been working to build for the last 25 years," Davis said. "The horses would have gone berserk. We would have had to close down everything. No parent in their right mind would bring their fragile child into that sort of environment. Not only would we have been out of business, but who's going to buy a place like mine that's next to something like that?"
As momentum for the egg farm began to build in 2007 and 2008, many local residents formed a small, grassroots organization, the Northwest Neighborhood Alliance. While founding members of the NNA have declined to talk with the press due to a years-long court battle started by their efforts to speak out about the farm, their mission has remained alive, Davis said.
"It may have seemed quiet to an outsider, but those of us in York Township never stopped our endeavors to get them to back off," she said. "We've consistently consulted with other people and had the meetings every Monday evening to keep updated on the situation and on what we could do."
Although York Township is one of the less-populated portions of the county, residents and their supporters have consistently shown up in force for numerous public meetings dealing with the egg farm. As the proposal began to take shape in 2008, more than 400 local opponents of the project squeezed into Karen's Event Center in Marysville to speak about the issue. Organizers had to pull out temporary walls to make room for everyone.
Resident Pam Marshall said her family has lived in the area since the early 1800s, when members came in covered wagons from Pennsylvania. Her mother still owns the family bed that was transported on that wagon.
"One of the things that attracted us to this grassroots effort, it's the local people taking care of a local situation, doing what's best for our community and the people who live around us," she said. "We live here because it's a rural area. We care about each other and the environment and what goes on here.
"We have values that don't include making a lot of money for somebody else who doesn't even live here, or they're not going to concern themselves with anything in the community but their business plans," Marshall said. "And we get their trash, their broken roads, their dirty air and water. We get their flies and odor."
Township resident Cheryl Johncox, who also works as interim director of the Buckeye Forest Council, said many in the community don't believe the fight is over, with House Bill 229 working its way through the Statehouse. (For an analysis of H.B. 229, read the sidebar on page A1.)
"I think this is just one more attempt to restrict local government and to consolidate all of the power in Columbus," she said of H.B. 229. "And the farther away from your elected officials you are, the harder it is for them to hear you. It's like they're starving local government."
Davis said the residents have a proposal for Hi-Q:
"Our organization, we're a 501(c)3 and anyone who donates to us gets a tax write-off," she said. "We want to give Hi-Q the opportunity to leave here wearing a white hat. They are welcome to donate this land next door to Serendipity Stables and leave with a huge tax write-off, having helped the little old lady who works with autistic children."
Davis said plans have even been drawn up that include cabins, a pond and campgrounds on the 400 acres that had been intended for the egg farm.
"We're going to give them the opportunity to do the right thing," she said.
Resident Evan Christian said bringing more chickens and manure into an area of the county already saturated with them would make living conditions in York Township even more unbearable.
"You should stop by here in the middle of July," he said. "Last year (local egg facilities) trucked 20,000 tons of chicken manure past my house in eight days, and that's the figures they gave us. Just to go to the mailbox, you have to wait until there aren't any trucks coming because of the smell.
"If they would do things to keep all of that smell on their farms, we'd have no problem with them," Christian said. "But they have ruined my way of life."
"When you have a cookout or something in your yard, like you do this time of year, you just have to keep your fingers crossed that the wind's not coming from the wrong direction," Marshall said. "If they want to be good neighbors, as they claim they want to be, then that's something where they need to keep things as natural for those around them as they possibly can."
"We have friends who have respiratory attacks so bad because of the air quality that their doctors tell them not to leave their houses," Johncox said. "You never know from one day to the next if you can even work in your own garden without your nose burning and your eyes running."
Davis said although the issue began three years ago, her neighbors have continued to make themselves heard.
"The time does kind of wear you down, but when you think about losing your entire way of life, it gives you the motivation to keep flailing," she said. "We had this immense problem; it was going to be the destruction of our community. But due to the tenacious capacity of some of those in this community, we withstood it.
"I'm sure everyone's heaving a huge sigh of relief," she said. "It's probably rare for a little community like this to hang on for so long, but I'm really proud of everyone here."