Long fought battle for composting operation

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A land use battle that has dragged on for nearly a decade through the county planning department and state courts may come to an end in April without further action by Manuel Brazil and his partner, Kurt Larrecou, who have been unsuccessful in obtaining a use permit for an expanded composting operation at the former's large livestock auction and rendering facility alongside Highway 101 at Corona Road.

The Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard, Inc., a familiar landmark to longtime Petalumans, began operation in 1947 on the 27-acre lot now sandwiched between Highway 101 and Petaluma Boulevard North. In the intervening years, the city has grown around the old auction yard, eventually putting nearby homes and businesses in conflict with the business.?

The company's main business of selling cows, sheep, goats and horses has steadily declined in the past decades, so Brazil has looked for other ways to derive income from his highly visible property, but those efforts have so far proven highly controversial.

Compost has been a natural byproduct of the animals housed there for auction, and up to 60,000 cubic yards a year were composted on the site for many years, according to letters on file with the Sonoma County Permit Resource and Materials Department.

But in 2005, when Brazil leased his property to Greenko, Inc. and nearly tripled the compost output to 150,000 cubic yards, much of it brought in from local farms, the proverbial manure hit the fan.

It wasn't long before passersby noticed a huge influx of new composting materials, piling up much higher than ever before, and neighbors began complaining about odors emanating from the site.

The county subsequently sued Manuel and Jodi Brazil, Greenko, Inc. and Lawrence Johnson, the compost operation operator, winning a permanent injunction barring them from operating a larger size compost facility without a new use permit. This forced them to remove the new composting operation in 2006, and the injunction was upheld on appeal.

An application for a new use permit was submitted in December of 2006, but it was eventually denied by the Board of Zoning Appeals after the applicants failed to provide requested studies on the potential for having a new or expanded septic tank, hydrology studies, a study of potential downstream damage from floods, and a study of the nutrient barriers needed to keep compost nitrates from getting into the adjacent river.

Brazil and Larrecou, who was once listed as CEO of Greenko, have yet to provide the documentation first requested more than four years ago, according to PRMD Planner Melinda Grosch, which the BZA duly noted in denying the application in February, 2011. Brazil and Larrecou? appealed that decision, but have yet to pay $9,000 in accumulated fees. An August, 2011, request for postponement of the appeal to submit a revised application was granted.

In 2007, the expanded composting operation was the target of a successful lawsuit filed by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. The environmental group alleged that the operation was an industrial facility discharging pollutants in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Petaluma Livestock Auction and Greenko subsequently paid penalties and fees and were forced to curtail operations.

Andrew Packard, a Petaluma-based environmental attorney who represented the environmental group, said that sample results from waters just downstream of the compost piles showed a 1,000 percent jump in nitrates, 700 percent jump in sulfates, and large increases in potassium, nitrite, chlorides and other pollutants. "This kind of operation requires a Clean Water Act Permit," said Packard, who also serves as a board member for Friends of the Petaluma River.

When, in 2007, Brazil began stockpiling fiberglass swimming pool shells for Sonoma-based West Coast Fiberglass Pools, accompanied by a huge banner sign visible to Highway 101, more complaints were filed. That prompted the county to issue two notices of violations — one for the shells and one for the sign — and the operation was eventually relocated.

The City of Petaluma has filed letters and memorandums opposing the expanded composting application from the beginning, expressing concern over water pollution, the potential for worsening localized flooding, noise, parking and odors.

Neither Brazil, Johnson or Larrecou returned phone calls requesting interviews about their operations or their plans.

The company's appeal of their 2006 composting application with the Board of Supervisors, initially scheduled for Feb. 28, is now scheduled for April 10. If Brazil pays the outstanding fees and provides the requested documentation, the Board will send the matter back for further consideration, according to Grosch.

(Contact Jay Gamel at argus@arguscourier.com)

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