Bob Culver: Zoning decisions key to poultry house debate

In recent months, Wicomico County has experienced an increase in the development of large scale chicken houses known as CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).  Many county residents have expressed concern over health and environmental impact as well as economic impact on their property, both residential and commercial.

With so much misinformation and misconceptions being circulated, we felt it was in everyone’s best interest to assemble a panel of experts to address the issues.  Working with the office of Governor Hogan to secure the most knowledgeable people in the State, we were able to schedule the forum for March 22nd at the Wicomico Civic Center. Responsible parties from the Maryland Departments of Agriculture, Environment and Health & Mental Hygiene, in addition to several local representatives, answered questions, many submitted in writing by the more than 500 citizens in attendance.  Almost all the panel members were from agencies within the Maryland departments that are responsible for regulating, permitting and inspecting CAFOs.

While emotions were high and those who adamantly oppose CAFOs picketed outside, we were pleased that the audience was respectful of the panel members and each other.  For nearly two hours, the health and protection of the Paleo Channel was discussed along with waste management and potential health risks.

Significant points made by the panel included:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set very protective standards for levels of nitrates in water.  These standards are implemented by the State of Maryland through regulation, permitting and inspection.
  • Storage of waste, including the chicken housing, are “under roof”, meaning rain water does not reach the waste to cause run-off.
  • Properly permitted and maintained poultry operations produce less effect on the environment than run-off from fertilized lawns.
  • Compliance is key.  If permits are adhered to, there will be no discharge of waste in excess of the nutrient management plan.
  • Field crops use significantly more water than poultry houses.
  • The Department of Health & Mental Hygiene finds there is no significant evidence that poultry workers have increased health issues from exposure to chicken houses.
  • The aquifers in Wicomico County are among the best in the State.  Water levels have stayed consistent since the 1960s and the “recharge” nature provides is adequate.
  • Areas that need further discussion and examination:
  • Permitting process – It is important that those who plan to build CAFOs apply for a CAFO permit in the beginning of the process and not at the end.  One presenter suggested that the CAFO permit be the first one applied for and then work backwards from there.
  • Inspections – Inspections are conducted every 5 years or if a complaint is received.  Should more frequent inspections be considered.
  • Health/Environment – There are currently no standards or testing for particles emitted from chicken house exhaust fans.  However, odors and particles are of some concern with regards to asthma.  It is hard to quantify because each individual is different and everyone is not affected.  Currently, there is not enough known by DHMH to set any standards for CAFO construction.  However, consideration should be given to location of houses in relationship to residential homes.

At the conclusion of the forum, I personally felt there were adequate regulations in place to protect the Paleo Channel and other aquifers.  I am aware that there is data that may say otherwise.  It is a question of whose data do you trust and whose data is being used by authorities to make their decisions.  Let’s remember that opposing data can be found for almost any subject you want to name.

My real take away from the forum, however, was when a zoning question was asked or the panel referred to something as a “zoning issue”, it drew the most audience applause.  At the end of the day, I believe that is the true concern of our citizens.  No one wants a CAFO within view or “smell” of their homes or businesses.  It boils down to economic impact.

We must recognize that economic impact cuts both ways.  Wicomico County has and continues to reap enormous economic benefits from the poultry industry through employment, taxes and support of local businesses.  Even the social fabric of our county has been improved by the generosity of poultry families to Salisbury University, WorWic Community College, Peninsula Regional Medical Center and so much more.  Wicomico County cannot afford to have the poultry industry leave.

At the same time, we cannot let our home values and residential and commercial property values decline.  Investors will not want to develop new businesses close to CAFOs and home owners will lose equity, both resulting in lower tax revenues to sustain the County.

So, what do we do?  It is up to the Wicomico County Council to develop a balanced approach to our zoning laws, so all can find a way to prosper.  Given the findings from the forum, I believe there is a pathway to find the right answer.  It is what our friends in the poultry industry deserve as well as our taxpayers.

Bob Culver is the County Executive of Wicomico County,

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