Poultry farm foes take concerns back to county

Strong objection to the proposed mega chicken houses off Naylor Mill Road continued at the County Council meeting Tuesday, and ended with a promise from the Council to take comments into consideration and keep the public informed.

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

At issue are plans to build the biggest poultry farm in the county, composed of 13, 60-foot-by-600 foot chicken houses on 63 acres near the intersection of Naylor Mill and North West roads.

Zulfiqar Ahmed of Virginia and his family bought the land last spring, paying $377,000, according to public records. They plan to reside on the premises.

Rick Green, a retired pastor who lives less than two miles from the property in question, firmly told Council members, “We’re asking our esteemed leaders, which are here, to represent we the people, to take this matter under advisement and work with us.”

As more opponents prepared remarks, Jack Lennox, director of planning and zoning for the county, said no permits have yet been granted for the farm and that the owner has been asked to make modifications and redesign and resubmit the plan.

“The way the system is set up, if they meet requirements, it is considered permitted use,” Lennox said, adding the County Council does not approve permits.

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

Strausburg said there will be a public process to inform those who are concerned. Lennox said in the past there has not been public interaction. “This would be a significant step forward,” he said.

After hearing public objection, Councilman Marc Kilmer said while council  members understand concerns, there are strict state rules about how chicken manure is handled.

Agriculture, he said, “is a big industry in Wicomico County.”

The county is agricultural and the future is going to be operations like the Wright Farm in Hebron, he said. While neighbors’ concerns will be taken into consideration, the agricultural industry must be kept viable, he said.

Cannon said legislation is forthcoming.

“The regulations we have in place right now are not sufficient for any industry or any community whatsoever and we do recognize that. The legislation will come to the table. We have to find balance between the neighborhoods and also the poultry industry itself. It is a very strong industry in this community … it helps us sustain our life in this community, our livelihood. We will address it very soon,” Cannon said.

Among those objecting were an emergency room doctor who lives on a farm in Somerset County and said he drove to Salisbury for the 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.

One man said it’s bad enough that a nearby landfill causes  odors in the neighborhood, without adding a chicken farm.

“I think the Council needs some serious input, if it means having people (gather for a public hearing) at the Civic Center … and you also need to be thinking, ‘What district do I represent?’” he said.

“It seems there are some things more important than how much money the county can make … like what happens to my little kids who have health problems, what happens to my older folks, 60 plus, who have health problems?” he said to rousing applause.

Phillip Ross, who lives in the area, worried about how the farm could affect the PaleoChannel underground water supply.

“Once we lose that water, it can never be replaced again … I am asking you, do not let this happen,” he said.

Fellow resident Monica Brooks said county residents want to breathe clean air and be confident in the water they drink.

“We want to be comfortable knowing when we come out of our two-lane road … we aren’t going to be inundated with 18-wheelers,” she said.

She asked about how gases in the air will change and how chicken carcasses are disposed of.

“I’m here to give you copies. We have petitions that have been signed, 150 families that have signed so far,” she said, to applause.

Margaret Barnes, who moved to Salisbury in the fall, said she was horrified “when I learned 13 mega chicken houses were being built not a mile away from city limits.”

She said they would be the length of two football fields and grow thousands of birds.  “I’m really confused why there is not more opposition to this,” she said, quoting the Environmental Protection Agency, that animal waste dangerously pollutes water and air and is especially harmful for children.

“These giant fans are blowing all kinds of nastiness into the air, like methane … just two chicken houses is too much methane …. We’re all going to be just like the Chinese people who have to wear masks every day because the pollution is so bad. I can’t believe anybody would approve this,” she said.

Ellen Bethel’s voice broke with emotion 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 set-backs.

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 with what you’re going to tell us, what we can do and can’t do. It’s A1. It’s ag,” he said, referring to the area being zoned for agricultural use.

Chicken manure is contained in poultry buildings, he said, then moved to sheds before being spread on fields.

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

A teacher and environmentalist who has worked for animal rights groups said a farm as large as the one proposed “is not good.”

Negatives impacts of mega farms are well documented and CAFOs were banned in Europe, he said.

“I’m concerned about the land here. This is a unique ecosystem here …  I know we have chicken farms here but it’s not the best place for it,” he said.

India Marshall said her grandparents live near Naylor Mill and she is concerned about safety of their water. A lot of home owners in the area aren’t going to sell their homes and move if water is becomes contaminated, she said.

Ernie Bond of Mount Hermon Road said Somerset County has twice the lung cancer occurrence as any other county in Maryland. There is direct correlation between where CAFOs are, and high concentrations of cancer, he said, adding he has been treated for cancer.

“I can’t see any way we can allow something like this to be a mile and a half from an elementary school,” he said.

Another speaker called for a moratorium while more research is completed.

“Something needs to be done by you to stop this operation until you do more study,” he told council members.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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