System working to solve chicken house disputes

It was one of those issues that came out of nowhere — one whose arrival might have been predicted, but still shocking when it hit the governmental decision-stream.

At first, the proposed construction of chicken houses on Northwest Road outside of Salisbury didn’t seem potentially troublesome. The number proposed — 13 houses — was larger than normal, but with the poultry business gravitating toward larger so-called factory-farm operations, it only seemed like a wave for the future had finally landed on the Wicomico beach.

Soon, however, the proposal would become all-consuming: Not only was it a major news story that invited ample public debate, the controversy even began shaping workplace attitudes in the Government Office Building, ultimately blossoming into an issue that would cloud 2017 fiscal budget consideration and overwhelm elected and appointed officials.

Project opponents soon took their concerns to the County Council, and public meetings became forums where opponents would line up to blast county zoning rules as well as the elected officials.

Eastern Shore culture was assailed, as were the poultry industry and virtually anyone who refused to acknowledge chicken houses as a major local health threat.

Fact was interspersed with hyperbole in a way that made it difficult to choose a side. At first, council members sat there with stunned looks on their faces. As the fusillades continued week after week, however, they became more accustomed to hearing out their constituents, no matter how bitter the criticism.

It also seemed in the beginning as if the council tried to sidestep the issue. Because the proposal fit within county zoning, there was little if anything the body could do — legally — to stop it. While some on the council took the stance that the larger poultry-growing operations were the future (based on economies of scale way and a desire to concentrate production), others on the council were quietly hoping state officials might step in and stop the project, possibly on the basis of excess groundwater consumption or some other technicality.

But all of that was going to take a long time to play out, and the West Road folks weren’t going anywhere. And, it soon became obvious that the same sort of poultry complex proposal would be introduced elsewhere in the county, with a similar public backlash more than likely.

Perhaps recognizing that they had little ability to make a zoning argument, the opponents touted health concerns. Chicken houses — and their waste and odors and even their service-truck traffic — presented a danger to those who lived nearby, they said. The County Council should stand up and oppose it all, they said.

It appeared that the County Council really didn’t know what to do and needed help on a solution. Whenever city or county officials face opposition on a matter, when the zoning rules need to be publicly explained, when a calm expert is required to serve as the Voice of Reason, local municipal officials have picked up their Bat Phone and called Jack Lenox, the mild-mannered Planning & Zoning Director for both the city and the county.

But , when the County Council called, there was an immediate problem: Lenox had been instructed by his boss not to talk.

Bob Culver and the crew in the County Executive’s Office rather shrewdly saw there were two sides at play and in conflict. In an unprecedented move, Culver told the council that Lenox was off limits to them, at least for the time being. Culver then set out to host a public forum in which state experts would take questions from the public — poultry proponents and opponents alike — about health issues and chicken houses.

Lenox being barred from appearing before the council, to help members in a search for answers, set the state for an incredibly awkward time in county government. Tensions between the council and executive were running high.

Meanwhile, seeing what was going on, the Planning & Zoning Commission got busy. While health matters could be discussed and debated and fought over for eternity, the appointed city-county Planning Commission members (the panel serves both jurisdictions) quickly realized more Northwest Road-like issues were bound to come along. It was the proper time to — in a grand a public format — measure the opponents concerns, the poultry industry’s needs, the changing economics of growing chickens and in turn reshape the county’s zoning rules to fit the adjusting needs of residents, farmers and an important local industry.

On June 13, the Planning & Zoning Commission held a multi-hour hearing at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, where it received comments regarding proposed amendments to the Wicomico County Zoning Code related to poultry houses.

Last week, the commission forwarded its recommendations to the County Council and County Executive; the council will formally receive the recommendations and schedule a public hearing on the measures.

Among the changes, new poultry houses and related buildings for poultry production would be prohibited within 400 feet of any home or similar building not on the farm; they would also have to sit at least 200 feet from any property lines.

In residential-only zoning areas, there would also be a 500-foot setback when exhaust fans are facing away from dwelling not on the property and 600 feet when any exhaust fans are facing toward any residential building not on the property.

County planners have also offered new specifics on the county’s zoning maps to help make future decision-making easier. Any new poultry houses proposed in a residential-zoned area could only be approved under a special exception at the hands of the Board of Appeals.

Currently, Wicomico only requires a 100-foot poultry house setback from all property lines.

Jack Lenox

Jack Lenox

So who is Jack Lenox?

For the past 14 years, Jack Lenox has served as Director of Planning, Zoning, and Community Development for Wicomico County and the city of Salisbury. He arrived on the Eastern Shore with more than 20 years of professional experience, having served as Director of Planning & Development for the coastal towns of Plymouth, Mass., and North Kingstown, RI.

With a trace of a New England accent and a demeanor that espouses sincerity, Lenox is legendary for his ability to remain calm and confident in zoning discussions, which of all local government activities are known for temperamental exchanges — often when developers, environmentalists, lawyers and code enforcers share a room, tensions can spill in a major way.

In discussing the back and forth of the last seven months, however, Lenox shows no signs of any stress. When pinned down, he will only admit:

“It’s been a very interesting time.”

In watching the process that has led to proposed zoning changes, one might conclude “the system worked.” While complimenting the integrity of the process, Lenox said it’s too soon to say that for sure.

“The jury is still out on that end, and with Northwest Road in particular,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest that the folks who came out in very heated fashion and sincere fashion in opposition (feel the system worked). I’m not sure the outcome is the one that they particularly comfortable with in the long term. But, you know, we learn this as we go along. That was the first big one.”

Still, Lenox agreed the opponents’ efforts might ultimately benefit fellow citizens across the county.

“Oh, certainly,” he said. “That’s exactly what it is, because it’s not just that street, that end, or east side or west side of the county. We’re 400 square miles, two-thirds of our county is agricultural zones. All parts of the county — if they haven’t experienced it today — will experience it at some point and because of these lessons that we’ve learned we’ll all be better off.”

Said Lenox:

“We all know about the importance of agriculture but then how that plays out in people’s day-to-day lives is something we’ve all heard a great deal about and taken seriously, and had a great deal of public discussion.”

Lenox is also proud of his office’s procedures in informing the public, via site signs, advertisements and public announcements.

“It’s been a very public process. The great notification procedures ensures people have an option to be participants in the process. The issue has been coming along for awhile. Some of our neighbors in adjacent counties have been dealing with this. It’s something the Eastern Shore is experiencing.”

Process is important, and making sure good decisions get made are essential to the processes being publicly  supported.

“In an ideal world, you have a grand theory and you have one way of approaching a subject — and one answer — the best answer,” Lenox said.

“I think the older we get, we all know there is no grand theory, there is no one size that fits all. To reach the best conclusion you can, often times that requires compromise. But first you need to get a really good handle on facts as you can best determine.

“So to get get a better handle on the science of it all and to ask everyone to weigh in, and even if there’s not a ‘we know the answer’ conclusion, we need to get that sort of understanding, frankly, before you jump to the last page of the book and determine this is what we’re going to do about it.

The possible conflict of having many bosses to please — Salisbury’s mayor and City Manager, as well as the County Executive and County Administrator, not to mention to councils and a commission — might be overwhelming to some people. Lenox seems unfazed.

“I’ve never had the advantage of working for only one person. In this case I do report to (Bob Culver and Wayne Strausburg), but they don’t want me to only do what they say at that moment, because we do have a system that allows a sharing of authority and responsibility with the public — and it’s important to set up a process that involves all of those.”

So what has been gained through the process and new regulations, if approved?

“It’s different than in the past, and it’s important to point out that in the past poultry house could go almost anywhere with very little regulation — infact, without even a building permit.

“So what we have done in a proposal that will soon be going to a public hearing through the county council is to reflect our comprehensive plan, our own existing zoning and to just make sure they’re all relatively consistent. So yes, it ‘s a new approach to poultry, but it’s consistent with the way we’ve addressed a lot of other things.

“Essentially what we fell back to was to say we have residential districts in the county and those residential districts need to be protected.”

Protection and public transparency flow into almost all of Lenox’s observations about his role.

“I’ve always thought about this from a very personal standpoint:  If you come to the area and you go out to a place where you’d like to live, for your family to locate, often times people warned you: They’d say don’t move in next to a chicken house.

“People would say you’re right, I’m going to go out there and check the neighborhood and check the zoning and see where the schools are and all of the other factors, and then you feel good with your decision. Often times, people never thought about the fact that in a very nice residential neighborhood, where we are telling people to go — please go there — that something could come in next door — and as recently as just a couple of years ago not even have a building permit.”

Lenox refuses to take personal credit for coming to the council’s — and the public’s — rescue with zoning changes that could prove beneficial in the long term. He insists that his was not a leading role.

“It’s more of a back and forth iterative process. I am not here as a professional planner to tell the community what they want, to tell them what they want to be,” he said.

“You have to be able to listen, to listen to the elected officials, listen to our appointed board members — and we are fortunate to have a great Planning Commission that provides really good positive feedback — and the public.

“You know, one of the difficulties from a staff point is that if we go into a discussion and we’ve already drafted an agenda, a staff report and the last thing, a recommendation, — that’s difficult to time before you have the public input.

“So, in terms of that process, one of the things that the Planning Commission decided to do was go to public hearing, have the topic, listen to people, then come back and do the ‘OK, we’ve all heard this, we have a good handle on the best information we can get — not everything — then figure out how to move ahead. The public hearing we had was very helpful in terms of just letting folks  talk and giving us their viewpoint.”

Last week, when Lenox handed over the issue to the County Council, members praised his effort.

Council President John Cannon told him: “You did a lot, a lot, a lot of work that makes our jobs easier. Excellent job.”

Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at gbassett@newszap.com

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