Sugar Valley residents air concerns on Nicholas Meats

LOCK HAVEN — It might get worse before it gets better — and it might never get better at all. That seems to be the attitude of some Sugar Valley residents who live near a slaughterhouse and meat processing plant.

About 50 people packed the Greene Township building Monday for a hearing on Nicholas Meats’ plan to enlarge its parking lot and improve traffic conditions around the plant, which sits between the township building and the Sugar Valley Rural Charter School.

More than 10 people sat at the hearing table, including Gene Nicholas, owner of Nicholas Meats LLC.

The 35 or so people in the audience included Clinton County Commissioners Pete Smeltz and Jeff Snyder.

The hearing was for the parking lot plan, which includes a new entrance to the plant property from East Valley Road and a new guard shack that allows trucks to line up in the parking lot, not on the road.

However, township supervisors permitted the audience to bring up other matters. Speakers talked about a bad smell from the plant that they said permeates the neighborhood and their fears that water quality could be damaged.

Nicholas described the parking lot project as a way to relieve the current problem of having tractor-trailers backed up on East Valley Road as well as the problem of trucks dragging mud from the facility onto that road.

Nicholas Meats has acquired the former Ron Gettys farm, 38 acres that sit across the road from the plant, on the north side. The former farm was rezoned in August to support industry.

Nicholas Meats plans to build an anaerobic digester there to deal with wastewater from its operations. This, officials say, is expected to cut down on the bad smell.

A separate plan addresses sewage that would not go to the digester.

Wastewater at the plant is stored in aerated tanks.

“Those will go away with the digester. It will all be enclosed,” Nicholas said. “What we are planning on doing was referred to by a professor from Penn State as state-of-the-art. Those were his words, not mine.”

To get the wastewater to the digester, a utility tunnel underneath the road is proposed. The tunnel would be built before the parking lot is improved, so the lot’s new surface would not have to be ripped up right away, according to Britt Bassett, president of Bassett Engineering Inc., and consulting engineer to Nicholas Meats.

The tunnel would be 10 feet by 10 feet, Bassett said. It also could hold a stormwater drainage pipe, he said, although the details of what will go through the tunnel are not yet on paper.

The business had a parking lot plan in 2015, but it hasn’t been executed. Now the plan has changed.

The business wants to expand the lot to add 32 truck parking spaces and to move the guard building back, so that up to five tractor trailers could pull off East Valley Road and wait to be checked in.

Once they are checked in and pass the guard shack, tractor trailers could continue to line up on Nicholas’ property, with even more space provided for that purpose. They also could use the truck parking spaces.

“The plant entrance will be a significant upgrade,” Bassett said.

Employees will have 325 parking spaces, and all traffic except office parking will use the new entrance, he said.

Issues

The timing of the improvements, including the digester, will depend on how much can be accomplished during construction seasons, Bassett said.

Regulations and approvals also must be met, Nicholas said, and those things take time.

East Valley Road resident Patricia Leigey asked, “Can’t you do it all at once so we can get this smell done with?”

Leigey also said land application of wastewater has contaminated her drinking water and asked, “Why aren’t we getting (the digester) done first?”

She later asked that Nicholas Meats not expand until the digester is in place.

Alexander Seretis, a summer resident, agreed with Leigey’s suggestion.

He presented an 11-page “response” from his nephew, Laurent-Philippe Veilleux, and Friends of a Livable Sugar Valley.

According to Veilleux, the township’s zoning ordinance says the grant of a conditional use “shall not materially increase traffic congestion … nor cause nor encourage commercial or industrial traffic to use residential streets, so as to pose a substantial threat to the health and safety of the community,” and “The use of adjacent of land and buildings will not be discouraged.”

According to Veilleux, the ordinance also states, “No use shall emit obnoxious, toxic or corrosive fumes or gases,” and “No use shall emit odors that are perceptible at lot lines.”

He quoted the Journal of Environmental Quality that emissions from animal production plants consist of “a mixture of volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and particulates … that arise during microbial decomposition.”

Anne Doerr, an East Valley Road resident, also presented an abstract about the adverse effects of noxious odors. She pointed to the proximity of the charter school and an Amish school that is next to the plant.

Nicholas said the business did not buy the Getty’s property to expand operations. It could legally expand them without special permission, he said, but noted that building permits would be required should the business build new structures such as a barn.

Water quality was another topic. Big Fishing Creek runs through the valley and is classified as a Class A trophy trout stream.

Glenn Vernon, a valley resident, is involved with the local watershed association and also rents out a guest house to people who come here to fish, including trout enthusiasts from other countries.

He urged “care and conscientiousness” as Nicholas Meats moves forward.

One of his first guests said of Sugar Valley, “I don’t know whether to call it breathtaking or breath-giving,” he said.

The audience broke into applause when he added, “You have something really special here. People travel from all over the world to see it. Don’t lose it.”

Alicia Cramer, another East Valley Road resident, asked the supervisors to require an environmental impact study or at least a hydrologic study of the proposed improvements and how they might affect the watershed. She also asked them to require the parking lot be paved, at least partially.

Doerr questioned the amount of water needed for the plant’s processes and said the limited aquifer in Sugar Valley must remain stable. She asked the supervisors to require frequent water quality testing.

“We are a limestone valley,” she said, which means the ground is permeable. This increases the danger of Fishing Creek being contaminated, she said.

Concerns were raised about landscaping to screen the processing plant. Sheats replied that screening is proposed, and there is a lighting plan as well.

Seth Rippey, who has two valley properties on Route 880, asked about setback requirements the business must meet. Sheats said the goal is apparently to consolidate both the current property and the former Getty’s farm. Once they become one property, the setback requirements change.

Township resident Lucy Heggenstaller suggested a semi-permeable surface for the parking lot which would help with both the mud problem and water absorption.

She also called for quarterly reports from the USDA inspectors at the plant. Nicholas said right now, anyone may read the USDA reports online, at anytime.

Requirements

After the hearing, the supervisors deliberated over Nicholas Meats’ request.

They decided the parking lot project meets the requirements for a conditional use. They also put some conditions on it, voting unanimously on them.

The parking lot is to be paved, as indicated in the plan, they decided. The drive coming off East Valley Road also must be paved, as well as the “future parking” area shown on a drawing.

The supervisors also said the business must provide the paperwork the township planning commission wants from it.

Township engineer Kenneth R. Estep said he had 48 review comments on the plan, and he and Nicholas representatives are working through them. The majority of the comments have been adequately addressed, he said.

“There has been discussion and, for lack of another word, argument about the validity of the township’s regulations,” he said.

How fast Nicholas Meats will be cleared to start this project depends on how fast the applicant meets the regulations, he said.

Estep also said the business submitted a stormwater management plan, and it must address the peak rate of stormwater. “We are working through that,” he said.

The supervisors imposed the condition that the project meet all hydrologic and hydrogeologic laws and regulations on the township, county, state and federal levels.

The supervisors can’t do much about traffic conditions on a state route (East Valley Road), according to Ryan.

They also shouldn’t try to impose conditions on expansion of the business, he said. If they did, that action could be appealed in county court which would remove the decision-making power from the local government leaders and slow things up by six to 12 months or more, he said.

The supervisors also shouldn’t place a condition on the smell when they are supposed to be focusing on just the parking lot plan, he added.

However, Ryan said, there are three things that might be done about the odor.

The first can be done by anybody, and that is to complain to the state Department of Environmental Protection office in Williamsport. The office’s air quality division is short-staffed, he said, but they would get to it eventually. The smell must be noted by the public and a DEP representative, he noted.

The second is for a private nuisance action to be filed in court. An individual landowner can sue Nicholas Meats in county court for being detrimental and damaging to his property, the solicitor said.

The third is that the supervisors can hire an expert to determine whether the plant affects the health and safety of the community at large. If the expert says it does, a suit can be filed.

David Doerr protested that both the hearing and the meeting that followed it that night were illegal because a printed notice had not been posted on the front door of the township building 24 hours in advance.

The Pennsylvania Sunshine Law, which governs open meetings, states a notice should have been posted somewhere in public view in the township building, but not necessarily on the door, according to the Pennsylvania News Media Association.

At the end of the meeting, Ryan said he will write up the supervisors’ conditions for review.

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