Poultry ordinance too late to help North West Road

The Wicomico County Council’s approval of a bill to regulate poultry farms doesn’t apply to the family that plans to build 10 chicken houses on North West Road.

That project has stirred controversy since early this year, when Zulfiqar Ahmed and his family wanted to put the biggest poultry farm in the county near the intersection of Naylor Mill and North West roads. It would have had 13, 60-foot-by-600 foot chicken houses on 63 acres.

Following an uproar of objections, the family agreed to redesign the plan, reducing it to 10 houses. Stormwater management was approved and now the family has six months to get a building permit, Jack Lenox, planning director for the city and county, said this week.

“The way the legislation is written, it has a provision that grandfathers in those who have already submitted stormwater plans to the county and who meet those qualifications. Anyone who submitted a completed stormwater plan to Public Works prior to the new code is not bound by it,” Lenox explained.

Ahmed bought the land last spring, paying $377,000, according to public records. The family plans to live on the premises.

But opponents, lining up to speak at several County Council meetings, were outraged. Some called them outsiders and said they aren’t welcome to come to Wicomico, build the farms, risk contaminating the water supply, pollute the air, then spend their profits in another state instead of boosting the local economy.

County Council members listened diligently and began working on tightening and improving the county code, which had only one requirement, 100-foot setbacks.

Last week, the Council passed what Council President John Cannon called “a fair bill,” with compromises between poultry farmers and the community.

“I think this Council has come a long way. I do understand the health concerns … I purchased my house in an agricultural district and I live by the rules of the agricultural district,” he said.

Even so, he won’t turn a deaf ear to those who fear proximity to chicken farms leads to health problems like asthma and lung cancer, he said.

Cannon read studies related to chicken farms during the past several months and said he was disappointed to find they contained data on chicken farms mingled with details about pig and cow farms.

But the Maryland Department of the Environment oversees chicken farm runoff issues that could affect community health and state officials don’t want local jurisdictions interceding or duplicating resources, Cannon said.

“We have to have the faith in that agency to do their job. Now, that’s just the runoff. If you’re looking at emissions – and I understand your concerns – any emissions that come from the poultry houses or any other industry, that is overseen (by another state agency),” he said.

While the Wicomico County Council is advancing zoning-targeted regulations that are more detailed than previously followed, poultry skeptics who have spoken at nearly every public forum for months are still unsatisfied.

Councilman Marc Kilmer said that isn’t surprising, considering the legislation isn’t perfect.

“I don’t know anyone who is happy with it. I know some people who aren’t unhappy,” he said.

But the County went from having one line in the county code that regulated poultry farms to now having six pages, “which is fairly significant,” he said.

Councilman John Hall said further amendments will be necessary, and called for quarterly work sessions on the matter. Cannon agreed there will be more work sessions.

Councilman Ernie Davis – the only one to vote in opposition to the bill last week, with Councilman Matt Holloway absent – said Tuesday night’s vote “isn’t going to be the end of it.”

The matter divided the community, he said, suggesting those in favor and those opposed “sit down and talk out their differences among them, then bring it to us.”

“I did vote against it, but it’s not like I voted against chicken houses per se … I don’t think it was done properly,” he said.

Some studies were completed in Georgia, he said, but that area is different from Wicomico County “and the area doesn’t even look like ours,” Davis said.

The County Council placed before the public changes to Section 225 of the code — “Poultry Houses: Definition of Basic Terms” — as well as other related sections of Chapter 225.

In taking the zoning approach, the council appears to have attempted to take action while still appeasing poultry advocates, including the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.

New poultry houses and related buildings for poultry production would be prohibited within 400 feet of any home or similar building; they would also have to sit at least 200 feet from any property lines.

There would also be a 600-foot setback applied to any exhaust fans 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 residentially zoned area could only be approved under a special exception at the hands of the Planning & Zoning Commission.

The council’s frustration on the issue is evident. Within the legislation, the bill states that “the new poultry house complexes appear to be of a significantly larger size than average poultry houses in the past, which presents several concerns including, but not limited to, environmental issues, groundwater purity and noxious odors.”

Officials across county government have quietly conceded that neither a final decision on the Northwest Road proposal nor the new legislation will cure the community stresses over larger poultry farms.

Currently, Wicomico requires a 1,000-foot buffer between poultry houses and neighboring homes.

The Naylor Mill project was scaled back to 10 houses when revised stormwater plans were turned in to the county planning office recently. The plans are still under review. Since the project was submitted before the new rules were acted upon, it will be processed under the existing code.

During the Public Comments section of the Council meeting, local farmer Charles Wright thanked the Council and said the chicken industry is “very important to us.” The community has made concessions on both sides, he said.

Dorothea Jones said it isn’t that residents who oppose chicken farms in residential areas dislike chickens, or farms that grow them, but are concerned about the location.

“Of all the vacant places, we just don’t want chicken houses in our neighborhood,” she said.

An angry Margaret Barnes said air quality from chicken farms is poor and can cause a variety of diseases such as  lung cancer.

“CAFOs have no place in dense populations unless you put filters on the fans, which I have addressed many, many times and I still have no answer to that,” she said.

The County Council chose willful negligence and indicated they don’t care about the health of the people “you have been entrusted to protect,” she said.

Now, she and other opponents will turn to state officials to try and get resolution, she said.

Concerned Citizens has sought to ban new poultry facilities within 3 to 5 miles of homes and public dwellings.

In agricultural areas, there is a minimum 200-foot setback from all property lines, including roads, and setbacks of at least 400 feet from existing houses not on farm properties, schools, churches, day-care facilities and similar buildings.

In certain residential areas, there’s a minimum 500-foot setback from other dwellings if their exhaust fans face away from those buildings; 600 feet if they don’t.

In agricultural areas, where the vast majority of the structures are put forward, administrators would continue to decide the fate of projects behind closed doors.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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