Controversial poultry complex on hold

When a Virginia poultry farmer announced plans to build what would be dubbed “mega chicken farm” on North West Road near Salisbury, nearby residents staged a near-revolution that sent county government reeling.

Concerns about poultry farming’s effect on public health prompted County Executive Bob Culver to hold huge Civic Center forum to address the topic.

Months of angry and conflict-ridden public meetings resulted in the County Council adopting new zoning regulations that sought to make any new poultry farms good neighbors.

Now, more than a year later, a project that sparked outcry, pleads and petitions might not be built after all.

“I am still thinking about,” Zulfiqar Ahmed of Virginia told the Salisbury Independent this week.

“It could be I will build it, but I am still thinking,” he said.

Ahmed said the property – slated for 10 chicken houses north of Naylor Mill Road — has not been sold. He declined to address reports that the tract will be leased to grow sod.

County Council President John Cannon said he had no information about the future of the property.

But this week, Jack Lenox, Director of Planning & Zoning, confirmed that Ahmed has been “remarkably quiet” and hasn’t yet begun to develop the tract.

“The last official dealings we had was the appeal that was filed in court that Judge (Jimmy) Sarbanes dismissed. The permits are still good but the clock is ticking on those,” Lenox said.

He was referring to an August ruling in Wicomico County Circuit Court upholding a Board of Appeals decision not to hear a further appeal from Concerned Citizens Against Industrial CAFOs.

“We haven’t heard any follow-up from the property owners recently, which is why I say it’s been quiet. When the appeal was dismissed it seemed unusual they were not active in trying to defend their permits,” Lenox said.

If construction is going to start, it must begin by Feb. 16, or the building permit will expire, Lenox said. If that happens, the developer will not only have to go through the process again, but comply with the county’s newly adopted standards.

“They could build poultry houses there, but they would be subject to additional setbacks that would significantly impact the design,” Lenox said.

State Delegate Charles Otto told the Salisbury Independent he has heard plans for the farm have been dropped.

“These chicken farms come to this size because of the restrictions, environmentally, we put on them, between sediment and erosion control and zero discharge. You have to spread over a larger area when you have some of these regulations, like retention ponds and protecting wetlands. We have a Catch 22. We created a monster but we have to still upgrade our production facilities,” he said.

“Those regulations are what creates the mega farms. … Unfortunately, we’ve got these special interest groups and some people who don’t want it next door to them.

“I lived on a farm and had it 50 feet from the house so it never has been an issue for me. You do have some odors and dust from time to time. Compared to other activity, I’d rather see chicken houses there than, say, a 5,000-resident condo,” Otto said.

Bill Satterfield, Director of the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, declined to speculate on how regulations could lead to the collapse of a proposed mega farm, saying only that if Ahmed is “not pursuing raising chickens on the property, that simply reflects the owner’s decision on how to use the land. No more, no less.”

On Ahmed’s building permit, Northeast Agri-Systems in Laurel is listed as the contractor, but a woman who answered the telephone there said as far as she knew, the company wasn’t involved.

Originally, the plan was to build 13, 60-foot-by-600-foot houses on 63 acres, the largest poultry farm in the county. Ahmed and his family bought the land for $377,000 and said they planned to live on the premises.

On Delmarva, the poultry industry is a multi-billion-dollar business with more than 120 million chickens, a few million fewer than had been grown in the past 10 years.

In February 2016, objections were so strong they prompted the County Council to promise to take comments into consideration.

Petitions containing hundreds of names were handed in. A moratorium on new chicken houses was called for, until further research could be done and Council members were urged to remember their duty to constituents.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg said there would be a meeting between the county and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and county officials would talk to a hydrologist about any possible impact on the PaleoChannel underground water supply.

Strausburg said there would be a public process to inform those who are concerned. After hearing objection, Councilman Marc Kilmer said while council members understood concerns, there are strict state rules about how chicken manure is handled.

Among those objecting was an emergency room doctor who lives on a farm in Somerset County and said he drove to Salisbury for a County Council meeting because he doesn’t want to see “what happened in Somerset County happen in Wicomico County.”

Battleship-sized chicken farms operate there, with huge fans audible all night long blowing ammonia and other substances that cause illnesses in those who were formerly well, he said.

“If you smell it, there is hydrogen sulfide gas, there’s ammonia, there’s run-off into the water, there’s tons and tons of fecal material. Please look at this carefully. The biggest thing is, there is nothing in Somerset County that controls density,” he said.

Ellen Bethel’s voice broke with emotion at a County Council meeting when she said the PaleoChannel “is our God-given resource and we need to protect it.”

Charles Wright of Hebron, a poultry farmer and Wicomico County Farm Bureau president, called for buffers and setbacks.

As a farmer whose family has two concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, “I’m insulted because we put up four chicken houses in 1993 … we’ve been growing chickens 21 years,” he said. The farm feeds his family and will pay for his children’s college education, he said.

“We have to be careful how we’re pointing fingers because we all have issues and we all have smells,” he said.

Residents of the Naylor Mill area also gave petitions to the Wicomico County Council.


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