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It can be quite an achievement for a collection of residents to fight a government decision and win. And it can be wholly disappointing to put up a battle and lose. What's the point?

Benton County's planning rules that prevent a development's neighbors from appealing a Planning Board decision to the County Appeals Board are unfair.

But it's no doubt downright infuriating to attempt to redress a grievance with an arm of local government only to be told you don't have a right to even ask.

On Feb. 12, Benton County's Planning Appeal Board was the panel that neighbors of a proposed Simmons Foods plant near Gentry had gone to. The neighbors had filed an appeal of the Benton County Planning Board's decision in December, after a public hearing, to approve the plant.

Simmons Foods plans a 400,000-square-foot poultry processing plant on 563 acres at 9802 S. Arkansas 59. Construction is expected to begin this year, with an opening set for the fourth quarter of 2019. The building site would take up about 100 acres. A Simmons official said the plant needs to move from its current downtown Decatur location to a space where room for its operation is more plentiful.

The company anticipates the plant will employ 900 employees, with possible expansion to 2,500 within three or four years. It will be a 24-hour-a-day operation involving three shifts each day. Officials anticipate trucks driving on and off the site at a rate of about one every six minutes.

In other words, this isn't your standard next-door neighbor.

Neighbors of the proposed location raised objections about the traffic, which will see a significant increase between the trucks and employee vehicles. Other concerns were about odors and noise, dangers of hazardous chemicals, potential pollution and, naturally, the potential that a poultry processing plan might have some adverse impact on the value of nearby residential properties.

We're not going to get into the pros and cons of those issues. The Planning Board approved the project based on its rules. But what happened when the neighbors got in front of the Appeals Board? In a few words, the message from Benton County was that the plant was essentially none of their business.

Benton County Attorney George Spence told the appeals panel that the county's planning regulations do not allow anyone other than a project's applicant to appeal a Planning Board decision.

Have you ever heard such a lopsidedly anti-neighbor policy?

The Appeals Board ultimately voted 6-1 in favor of a resolution stating "non-applicants" have no right to appeal decisions of the Planning Board.

What an insulting policy of county government. And what's worse, it seems it resulted from sloppy reforms of the county planning ordinance in 2014. Spence said earlier versions of the planning ordinance allowed adjacent property owners to appeal a planning decision, but it was left out of the 2014 revisions.

Joel Jones, a justice of the peace and a member of the majority in the Appeals Board's rejection, said new revisions to the county ordinance are underway and that he'll take up the matter with the Quorum Court.

It certainly needs to be taken up. We're not saying residents in this case would win or lose an appeal, but it sure seems the height of unfairness that they never even get a chance for a second review.

It's likely in Benton County government's best interests, too, to have an appeal heard from the affected neighbors. Otherwise, the county is just speeding along any courthouse litigation that might come from this or future decisions. Having that appeal step would certainly help establish that everyone had their due process rights protected. It sure seems to us that neighbors of a massive poultry plant ought to have such rights, and their elected officials shouldn't try to rob them of those rights.

It's long been said that you can't fight city hall -- and by extension, the county courthouse. But Benton County appears to have codified that notion.

It's an irresponsible and undemocratic process that's unfair, to say the least.

Editorial on 03/07/2018

Print Headline: An unappealing process: Benton County should do better by residents

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