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Moment of truth nears for pig farm

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    Jason Watts inside a pen tending to his pigs.
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    Jason Watts, left, with Cairo Town Supervisor Daniel Benoit as he and other town council members visited Watts’ pig farm on June 19, 2017.
December 5, 2017 - 11:30 pm

CAIRO — It’s the moment of truth for town councilman-elect Jason Watts and his pig farm.

Watts is a farmer who has been embroiled in litigation with Cairo Town Councilman Doug Ostrander this year. But Watts ran for a town board seat this year and won, effectively replacing Ostrander in January. The civil suit against Watts has since been dropped.

The lawsuit was filed by Ostrander, the Infantino family and the MacGiffert family naming Mark Meddaugh and Watts, Meddaugh’s nephew and second-in-charge of his mother’s business, Watts’ Oil, as defendants.

The suit claimed Watts placed pigpens inside the border of a piece of land he rents from his uncle on Mountain Avenue. As a result, neighbors who live on adjacent Mountain View Lane and Vienna Woods Road, including Ostrander, were allegedly subjected to health risks posed by noxious odors and potential water contamination from the animals.

A Town Health Board meeting will be held Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at Cairo Town Hall where health officers will review the Sound Agricultural Practice letter issued to Watts about his pig farm by the state Department of Agriculture. The board will make a decision that night about whether they agree with the letter and to adopt it for their findings.

The conclusion of the letter is as follows: “Based on the information and findings set forth above and in accordance with Section 308 of the Agriculture and Markets Law, I conclude that the production and marketing of hogs by Mr. Watts, as it relates to noise, odor, and water quality of the surrounding area, as described above, is sound.

A Sound Agricultural Practice is an opinion from a division staff member after performing in-depth, on-site reviews of agricultural practices that are called into question, according to the website agriculture.ny.gov. After an investigation of the site, an opinion can be rendered as sound, unsound or undetermined.

The letter was signed by Agriculture and Markets Commissioner Richard A. Ball.

Cairo became a Right-to-Farm community a few years ago. Meddaugh’s land is in a state-certified agricultural district.

“The point we’re at now is deciding whether or not to accept the findings of the state agricultural letter,” Town Supervisor Daniel Benoit said Tuesday. “We have to look at the Sound Practice Letter and determine for ourselves whether or not we believe the question of a potential public health hazard was adequately investigated.”

If the town board decides the state looked deeply enough into the potential of a public health hazard, officials will adopt the state’s findings and the investigation of Watts’ pig farm will be closed, Benoit said.

In the case the board does not believe the state’s investigation regarding the public health aspect, Benoit said more investigation is warranted from a public health nuisance standpoint.

Watts has previously said Bob Somers, manager of the state Department of Agriculture & Markets Agricultural Protection Unit, was aware of both the nuisance compliant and the public health concern regarding the farm before the investigation was conducted.

If the state’s letter is not adopted, the Town Health Board will hire an independent mediator — a solution that was discussed months ago.

Benoit said someone like a retired judge would be the third party to conduct a special investigation and make recommendations to the board, on which the town would base further decisions.

“It would be appropriate for him [Watts] to recuse himself from voting on the matter,” Benoit said, if the investigation continues. “But other than that, nothing would change.”

Watts and incumbent Councilwoman Mary Jo Cords won the open seats on the board. Ostrander did not seek re-election.

Watts ran on the Republican Party line and led the pack with 992 votes. Cords ran on the Republican and Conservative party lines and was just behind Watts with 902 votes.

Democratic candidates David Gabrielsen and Lewis O’Connor fell short on election night. O’Connor ran on the Democratic party line and finished with 532 votes. Gabrielsen ran on the Democratic party line and received 415 votes.

Watts said the board should follow the state’s recommendation.

“They should just listen to the state and drop it,” he said. “They [Ostander, Infantino, and MacGiffert] dropped the civil suit.”

Watts spoke to the Town Health Board members about how they haven’t received any further communication from Town Health Officer Dr. Robert Schneider since his initial letters late last spring.

In June, Ostrander reviewed four letters from Schneider, which contained Schneider’s guidance and opinion of the situation and claimed there was a potential health hazard.

“They’re not professionals, they have no health backgrounds — what even merits them to be Town Health Board officers?” Watts said Tuesday. “They [the Town Health Board members] still haven’t received anything from Schneider, so what are they going off of? As of now, they have nothing.”

Watts said he anticipates the meeting to result in a split 2-2 vote.

“Then what are they going to do? Hire somebody to come down and be a third party? I don’t get it,” he said. “I guess we’ll see how it goes — I’m not very nervous about it. What I’m doing is legal and I have probably one of the cleanest farms.”

If a vote is taken Monday to continue the investigation, Watts said he will recuse himself from decisions regarding his farm when he is sworn in as town councilman in January.

“As councilman, I’d hear both sides of the story and be fair — you can’t be biased at all,” he said of making a decision as a councilman in a similar situation. “As long as the person did everything legal and is a person of agricultural land ... If the state comes in and says it’s sound, I have to take their advice.

“How am I more powerful than the state? Farms are a part of life — you can’t live without them,” Watts said.

To reach reporter Anthony Fiducia, call 518-828-1616 ext. 2309 or email afiducia@registerstar.com.