Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Map error may stand in way of plant improvement

by Chris Schultz

February 24, 2011

Elkhorn — A proposed expansion of the Birds Eye food processing plant in Darien could bring more than 100 jobs to Walworth County.

The Walworth County Zoning Agency on Thursday was eager to grant the plant a conditional use to let the expansion go forward.

Unfortunately, final approval of the conditional use is out of the county's hands until what is described as a mapping error is resolved between the company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Warren Hansen, engineer working for Birds Eye, said a recent FEMA flood map puts the 50-year-old food processing plant, at W8880 Highway X, Darien, in the 100-year flood plain.

The building has never been in the flood zone before, Hansen said.

Construction in the flood plain would be forbidden. Hansen said there are indications from the mapping process that FEMA didn't realize the building is there.

The Walworth County Planning Division made an attempt to have the map corrected, but was told it would take as long as six months to go through the process, said Matt Weidensee, county associate planner.

Hansen said he's attempting to get the agency to redo the map based on corrected map elevations. He said incorrect map elevations may be why the agency believes the plant is in the flood plain.

Eric Hudson, plant environmental supervisor, said that time is short and if the map is not corrected, another plant in another county or state may get the expansion, along with the added jobs.

Birds Eye is one of several food-processing companies that have owned the plant over the past 50 years.

Birds Eye, owned by Pinnacle Foods, actually applied for two conditional use permits.

The proposed expansion, with its promise of more jobs, was also welcomed by the town of Darien and its plan commission, which also recommended approval of the conditional use permits.

One of the permit applications is for the expansion itself, which would bring the plant to 55,000 square feet, Hudson said. It would include expansion of production space, ingredient storage and equipment storage.

The project would include the addition of four dock doors, expanded parking and improvements to raw-product staging areas.

The second conditional use permit is to add a 35-million-gallon wastewater-storage lagoon that would be lined with high-density plastic.

The current clay-lined lagoon was built in the 1960s, Hudson said.

It is used to store wastewater from the plant during the winter and early spring months.

In summer, the wastewater is applied to a nearby alfalfa field, Hudson said.

Increased production and expanded product lines in the last two years have required the plant to expand its storage lagoon, he said.

The proposed lagoon would be aerated to reduce odors, he said.

According to its website, the Birds Eye plant employs 450 to 500 people.

The Darien facility processes green beans and carrots in the summer as well as prepared rice and pasta dishes such as Birds Eye's Steamfresh, Freshlike and Voila products.

Approval of the conditional use permits, on condition of the map corrections, is now up to the Walworth County Board.