No decision on Big Sky Cheese permit until at least July
A decision on the proposed cheese plant just east of the city limit won’t be made until at least July.
The Cascade County Zoning Board of Adjustment met June 27 to consider a special use permit application from Big Sky Cheese for a value-added agricultural commodity processing facility at 8346 U.S. Highway 89.
The project is tied to the proposed Madison Food Park complex that would include meat processing facilities and has become a divisive issue in the community.
The principal partner in the project is Ed Friesen, who attended Thursday’s meeting to speak about the cheese plant project and answer board questions with his development team that includes local engineers and other consultants for water and wastewater.
The board voted to postpone a decision on the permit until their July meeting, which has not yet been scheduled. The board also requested additional information from Big Sky Cheese regarding impacts on water quantity and quality, as well as air quality.
One member of the public tried to make comments on the motion to postpone but was told by Carey Ann Haight, chief civil deputy county attorney, that the public hearing was closed, though proper public meeting procedure requires public comment on motions before the board.
At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, county staff said they were recommending the board not make a decision on the permit during the meeting so that they could take into account the public comment made during the meeting.
Nearly 100 people attended the four hour meeting.
Public meetings come with set processes, which were frustrating to members of the public on Thursday.
County staff read their report and findings of fact for about an hour. Those documents were publicly available on the county website before the meeting.
Land use applications and hearings generally include a staff presentation on the proposed project, comments by the applicant, followed by the public hearing portion then board discussion before a vote.
Thursday’s meeting became disorderly at several points, particularly when Larry Kralj, a vocal opponent to the project, stood a few feet behind the applicant’s presenters and jumped to the microphone to chastise the ZBOA board for their process and not taking comment yet at that point in the meeting.
Bill Austin, ZBOA board chair, told Kralj to wait until the public comment period, causing some raised voices and Cascade County Sheriff’s Office deputies telling Kralj to stop causing a disturbance or be removed.
While Kralj was telling the board he didn’t want to listen to them anymore and wanted to give public comment, another man walked up next to him and joined in chiding the board, causing shouting from and across the audience from people agreeing with the men or telling them to sit down so others could hear the rest of the applicant’s presentation.
Throughout the meeting, another woman regularly shouted at the board and at one point walked across the room to Friesen asking him questions in a raised voice until Haight escorted her back toward her seat.
In considering the permit, county staff suggested conditions of approval that included the appropriate approvals from state, local and federal agencies, including the Montana Department of Transportation, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Cascade County City-County Health Department, and any other required permits.
Another condition would limit operations hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and require operations be done inside a fully enclosed building and any outside storage be fully contained, among other conditions.
If the board were to approve the permit, county staff would not issue the permit until all of the conditions were met.
During the meeting, Ed Friesen said that he comes from a long history of cheese production and intends to make several variety of cheeses the old fashioned way.
According to the permit application, at full capacity, the facility will employ 5-10 people.
Friesen said Thursday that the jobs would be “filled by Americans who are legal to work in the U.S.”
Several speakers said it was difficult to find quality employees in Great Falls because of low unemployment and low wages and asked Friesen what the company would pay their workers.
Friesen said no less than $15 hourly.
Friesen brought cheese samples for the public to trust during the meeting.
Several people spoke in favor of the project, focusing on the new jobs and potential for economic growth in the county.
Cleve Loney, a local real estate agent and former state legislator, said the county needed new business to come into the county to create more job opportunities.
“I think this is an excellent idea how to do it because we have an agricultural community,” Loney said.
Johnny Davis said the proposed project is obviously a hot button topic in the community, but he said based on his decade of business experience here, it’s an opportunity to advance the county.
“Opportunity, even if it’s one job, one person having a better opportunity for their family, it’s going to make Cascade County a better place,” Davis said.
Tiffany Naude said she was coming forward as part of a younger generation in Great Falls.
She said she came here from Maryland and has found that younger people get pushed out because the community is closed minded.
“The cheese factory adds a lot to Cascade County,” she said. “I think this would be beneficial to everybody.”
Once it was time for opponents to offer comment, Kralj was first to the microphone.
He said the discussion was broader than considering the cheese facility and “it’s about inviting industrial agriculture.”
Kralj said it was about Friesen getting his foot in the door for the larger Madison Food Park project.
“There’s plenty of cheese,” Kralj said and allowing the food processing plant would ruin the area’s livability.
Several speakers said that the facility wouldn’t do much for the tax base since the owners would probably apply for a tax abatement as they did with the egg plant in the city limits.
State law sets criteria for tax abatement eligibility and it’s not a criteria for land use decisions.
Others said they’d have to deal with the lights and odor of the proposed plant, though the development team said the processes either wouldn’t create odor, or it would be contained and mitigated through treatment.
Beth Thomas, a local science teacher, asked where the milk would come from and questioned whether a dairy operation would be established with the project.
Friesen said the milk would be sourced from Montana producers. Later in the meeting he said the project could benefit dairies statewide that are suffering from low milk prices.
Thomas suggested that other value added options would be preferred, such as pulse crops. She said those wouldn’t be as resource intensive.
Richard Hopkins, former park manager at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, said he believe the permit application was incomplete.
He said he wanted information on Big Sky Cheese’s business plan and tax information from the company’s principal members.
Bill Austin, ZBOA chair, said later in the meeting that they had strayed from the issues within the board’s jurisdiction and business plans were not within the scope of the permit consideration.
Judson Burrows questioned why the company didn’t locate within the city limits where they’d have access to city utilities.
He said he has concerns about wastewater, irrigation and the potential impact to the Madison Aquifer.
Several people expressed concern with the approach to the facility off U.S. Highway 89.
One woman said she had concerns about potential grass fires around the facility and suggested that perhaps the cheese plant employees be trained to fight fire.
Nate Kluz said there were better locations for the facility such as Chouteau or Fairfield.
“The location as proposed just really doesn’t make sense,” he said.
A number of nearby property owners said they were worried about the potential impact to their property values.
Jaybe Floyd said there was a lot of mistrust, founded or not, among residents, the county and the developer, because of the initial Madison Food Park application, which is still at the county planning office but has been on hold since May 2018.
She said that if the developers were to withdraw their initial application for the larger project, “maybe that would mitigate some of the suspicion.”
Deborah Jenkins said respect was needed on both sides of the issue.
“We’re not against growth for the county, we’re not against welcoming new businesses to our community, but we are concerned with is where is this really taking us,” she said.
She said the public needed completed and accurate information about the proposal.
“When the public doesn’t trust the process or the individuals involved,” it creates a lack of trust, Jenkins said. “If we don’t have information, left with skepticism, scrutiny and frustration.”
Michelle Levine, a ZBOA member, asked questions on the impact of the project to the private water supply for other property owners in the area and the impact to the aquifer.
Friesen said they would supply additional information to the ZBOA regarding water usage and impacts.
Rob Skawinski, a ZBOA member said “it seems like we’re having trouble understanding why the unknowns” for the project.
Joe Murphy of Big Sky Civil and Environmental has been hired to help design the project and said they need to get through the initial permit approval at the county before making what will be a costly investment into the detailed designs for the facility.
According to the permit application, “the scope and scale of the proposed Big Sky Cheese project will include, when complete, a state-of-the art, environmentally friendly facility for the processing of fresh milk supplied by local and regional dairy producers into a variety of cheese products.”
Big Sky Cheese registered with the Montana Secretary of State on April 16 and the registered agent is Church Harris, a Great Falls law firm, which is also the registered agent for Madison Food Park and is listed on the Big Sky Cheese application.
The Great Falls Development Authority has approved a $2.27 million bridge loan package to the Madison Food Park for their Bid Sky Cheese project.
GFDA submitted written comment to the county in support of the project.
The bridge loan to Big Sky Cheese is for pre-development work, potentially some infrastructure, according to Brett Doney, head of the Great Falls Development Authority.
The proposed project includes a new processing building that will be about 20,000 square feet, according to the application, and access to the site will be from U.S. Highway 89.
The facility would operate 260 days per year and a typical processing day would be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. with facility cleaning and maintenance throughout the day as well as 4-7 p.m. each evening and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. according to the application.
The facility will also include a small retail area for sampling and purchasing cheese products. The retail area will operate from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., according to the application.
The developers anticipate traffic based on a delivery capacity of 8,000 gallons to be 1.35 milk delivery trucks daily; 1.21 liquid whey delivery trucks daily; 1 value added cheese delivery trucks daily; 2 supply trucks weekly; 1-2 trucks daily for lab samples and packages; 1 mail truck daily and two trucks weekly for garbage/refuse. That totals about 6.86 trucks daily and about 35 weekly, according to the application.