Livingston, Foster Farms settle fight

LIVINGSTON -- In about 10 minutes, the city settled nearly two years of legal battles and other squabbles with Foster Farms.

The City Council unanimously approved an eight-page agreement with Foster Farms during an emergency meeting Tuesday that settles three lawsuits as well as a fight about renovating the sewer plant used exclusively by the company. Foster Farms executives must sign the agreement.

"You fight the hardest you can and you settle with what you can get," Mayor Gurpal Samra said after the vote. "Everyone gave up something."

The challenge of the Livingston-based poultry giant showed the city growing out of its company-town role and asserting its own will.

The first lawsuit was filed in summer 2006 by Foster Farms and dealt with water protection. However, it quickly splintered into a host of court cases and other disputes that couldn't be resolved. Until last week's compromise, the standoff seemed to be a game of chicken that was expected to go to trial in the next two months.

The litigation made both groups suspicious of each other. Foster Farms wouldn't let city building officials scour the complex for code violations and went to court to keep them out. Livingston leaders displayed photos of dead birds lying in puddles of water inside the plant after a council meeting, emphasizing their worries about the drinking water being contaminated by the slaughtering operation.

At the end of July 2006, Foster Farms sued the city because its leaders threatened to cut off the water flowing to the processing plant. The lawsuit centered on the best way to keep Foster Farms' processing plant from contaminating the city's drinking water.

In the resolution, the city agreed to safety devices the chicken processing company offered to install all along. It initially had demanded the highest level of protection because the other devices could fail.

Foster Farms officials at the council meeting declined to comment, forwarding inquiries to company counsel Randy Boyce, who was unavailable.

Mark Mulkerin, the Irvine-based attorney the city hired to fight Foster Farms, explained the compromise by saying he expects the company to quickly fix any water contamination problems that ever arise.

Will build its own sewer plant

In turn, Foster Farms has agreed to build its own sewer treatment plant. That allows the city to use 120 acres along the Merced River where the current facility stands for a park or businesses. City Manager Richard Warne estimated that the land north of the city could be worth up to $24 million. In 1997, the city had given Foster Farms an option to buy the swath for $1,000 an acre. That deal is now void under the settlement.

Additionally, the federal civil rights lawsuit against Warne and Public Works Director Paul Creighton will be dismissed. Attorneys had begun gathering evidence to bring that case to trial. No rulings have been issued.

That lawsuit alleged Warne and Creighton violated First Amendment and 14th Amendment rights in retaliation for the water-protection lawsuit by unfairly rejecting a building permit application; posting fliers at City Hall suggesting Foster Farms is responsible for "foul air in Livingston"; and by Warne urging residents during a meeting to call a number on the flier to complain about Foster Farms.

As the city argued these cases, officials learned that Foster Farms had expanded its processing plant without the necessary permits. Recently, company employees acknowledged that under oath. However, a three-judge panel ruled three weeks ago that city inspectors could not scour the plant for violations because it could be a tactic to gain leverage in the water-protection battle.

Settling this, Foster Farms executives will give Livingston copies of its blueprints to keep on file, which will be filed as if they were approved by the city, essentially wiping the slate clean.