Cannon voices displeasure with executive staff

In a surprisingly heated exchange, Council President John Cannon accused Wicomico County’s executive staff of obstructionism on Tuesday, after a council request to hear from a staff member was denied.

The County Council asked that Planning and Zoning Director Jack Lenox attend the council’s regular work session to answer questions surrounding a chicken mega-farm proposed for more than 63 acres near the intersection of Naylor Mill and North West roads.

Two weeks ago, Lenox publicly updated council members, explaining the proposal had been redesigned and downsized from 13 to 10 growing houses.

But instead of hearing from Lenox, county Director of Administration Wayne Strausburg was there to insist the issue wasn’t so much a zoning matter as a health concern.

Strausburg told Cannon that the county should be taking its lead “from those with expertise” at the Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Lenox “is not the person from whom we can get facts,” he said.

“The fundamental facts we need right now are on health and environment and agricultural practices. We’re proposing a good, factual foundation,” Strausburg said.

Fighting to keep his composure several times during the encounter, Cannon called it “absolutely egregious that we have staff members who have been instructed not to comment and to discuss with this council.”

“I don’t care if it’s chicken farms or chicken soup,” Cannon said at one point. “If the council requires that someone comes here, let Jack (Lenox) come to the table. It’s all taxpayers’ money. We’re all going in the same direction. But we’re getting stonewalled here.

“It’s an obstruction. It’s an affront to the council as a whole,” Cannon said.

After the meeting, County Executive Bob Culver told the Independent that secretaries of the Maryland Department of Environment, Agriculture and Health and Mental Hygiene confirmed they will come to Salisbury for a public forum and that he is in the process of scheduling it.

He said there’s a process for “gathering accurate facts that experts from the state Departments of Health and Mental Hygiene, Environment, and Agriculture can share.”

The situation has reached a high priority level, Culver said.

“We firmly believe that all information needs to be gathered and analyzed before regulation or legislation is considered,” he said.

Regardless, Cannon, during discussion with Strausburg at the meeting, rescheduled Lenox for the next County Council meeting and told Strausburg, “We’d like to have him here. If he says he doesn’t have information, that’s fine.”

Strausburg insisted legislation to regulate future large chicken farms is a matter for experts to decide. “Until we have more information, it is premature to have Jack Lenox here,” he said.

Cannon said it’s important to move quickly on new legislation, for future regulation.

“I don’t think we can sit here another month and another month and another month. We’ve been trying to move this ahead for eight months. We’ve been trying to work with the poultry industry. Even the poultry industry doesn’t want Wicomico County’s current legislative standards,” Cannon said. Neither the poultry industry nor neighbors of chicken farms want them built too close to residential areas, he said.

“There is no law to stop that in Wicomico County, until this council moves forward expediently,” Cannon said.

The exchanges, as well as Lenox’s absence, seemed to make the other council members uneasy. Councilman Marc Kilmer agreed the process of writing and passing new legislation “is going to take months.”

“Having expertise from the staff is important. We have to make sure we get it right. Agriculture is moving toward these larger chicken houses. The health issues are handled by state law, mostly,” he said, adding he appreciates Culver’s work to bring state officials to Salisbury.

Strausburg said he is happy to answer Planning and Zoning questions, “but what we’re addressing here is the entire direction of an industry and a fundamental change.”

“There have been assertions that these chicken houses are very detrimental to health and that they have detrimental environmental impacts. Before we take a half step we have to consider what the facts are on the ground. We have to do that (after hearing) what the people who make judgments have to say,” he said.

The Maryland Department of Health protects public health, he said, “and we should be taking our lead from them.”

The Department of Agriculture, he said, understands Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, better than anybody.

“What we’re urging is, a careful, deliberate gathering of facts,” Strausburg said.

Cannon asked what would happen if somebody requested a permit for another mega-farm in the next two weeks, or two months.

“By right they can do that,” Strausburg said.

“They absolutely have the right to do what they are doing. They absolutely have the legal right. We have to be very careful about how quickly we move ahead to take away property rights,” he said.

Strongly disagreeing, Cannon said there is “not, under any circumstances, a move to take away anybody’s property rights.”

Strausburg said the council’s draft legislation redefines a CAFO as 200 birds instead of 37,500. Cannon countered that isn’t the council’s firm plan, just an arbitrary document that will be used as a starting point. It isn’t a proposal or indication of how the council will move forward.

“This is not the time to try to incite people on whether or not the council is moving forward to compromise property rights. You insinuated we are trying to compromise property rights,” Cannon said.

“And you will. You will. Even with setbacks, you’re still compromising their property rights,” Strausburg said.

“These are work session documents, Wayne. These are items we probably will strike,” Cannon said.

Strausburg said details from experts will help the county government, as well the public, separate facts from assertions that aren’t necessarily true. Cannon said that’s the County Council’s plan, as well.

 

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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