County takes first stab at poultry zoning measures


In Wicomico County, where scenic rural areas dot the landscape in a picturesque arrangement and farm animals graze and crow, it seems odd to argue about chicken farms.

Many families, for generations, have farmed and raised chicken for large poultry companies, as a way of life.

Yet, in recent months, the farms have been at the center of controversy, one that has the Wicomico County Council caught in the crosshairs, it seems, between endorsing family farms that feed the economy and assuaging fears of outspoken opponents.

At many Council meetings, those objecting to a large proposed farm at North West Road have said so-called outsiders aren’t welcome to come to the county, build mega farms, risk contaminating the water supply, pollute the air, then spend their profits in another state instead of boosting the local economy. The family that wants to put multiple chicken houses at North West Road lives in Virginia.

Other large farms are being proposed, or built, in spots around Wicomico.

Could it be there is no more room for chicken farms? County Council members are grappling with that question as they face pressure to revise zoning laws.

At a work session Monday, the Council, with Planning & Zoning Director Jack Lenox discussed a draft of zoning laws to more tightly regulate proposed poultry houses and associated operations including fans, feed bins, litter storage, manure sheds, incinerators and composters.

The draft makes A1 agricultural zoning more restrictive in Designated Growth Areas. Setback requirements are included for schools, churches, daycare centers, nursing homes, mobile home parks and  residential communities of 10 houses or more. The standard 200-foot  setback is doubled.

A new provision is a minimum 500-foot setback for exhaust fans facing away from, and 600-foot setback for fans facing toward, schools, churches, nursing homes, day-care facilities, mobile home parks and subdivisions of 10 or more homes.

A vegetative buffer that hides poultry operations must surround all operations, Lenox said. In A1 areas, there must be at least three staggered rows of plants, with 10 to 20 feet between rows. In Designated Growth Areas, there must be a minimum of five rows.

There is an option for deciduous trees, which are seasonal, to be planted for beautification but not for buffering purposes. Councilman Joe Holloway said his neighbor, who operates a chicken farm, has two rows of deciduous trees, which are effective buffers, so requiring additional rows should certainly be suitable.

Cannon said grasses should also be considered and put in the final bill that will be submitted to the planning commission.

Cannon asked if three-row or five-row buffers are better. Lenox said five are preferred because if residences aren’t currently in the area earmarked for a chicken farm, they most likely will be in the future.

Requirements could be modified by special exception by the Board of Zoning Appeals, Lenox said. A special exception could be granted if:

  • Land use is consistent with the comprehensive plan.
  • Use doesn’t adversely affect residents or workers in the area
  • Use is compatible with use or development of adjacent properties.
  • Use doesn’t adversely affect transportation or burden water, sewer, school, park or storm water management areas including streams or other public facilities.
  • Use doesn’t adversely affect the environment, archeological or other historical assets of particular interest to the community.

Before granting the exception, the Board of Commissioners can require an impact analysis on the environment, traffic or other areas and also require bonds to assure compliance, Lenox explained.

County council President John Cannon said there has been much discussion about possible threats to health and the environment related to chicken farms. Some have called for a moratorium, but there are no plans for implementation. “It would do nothing more than delay that process,” Cannon said.

The North West Road proposal can’t be stopped, he said, and if the county tries to intercede there could be a court case. State regulations that oversee an industry can’t be overruled by the county.

“There are a lot of concerned people here and we don’t turn a deaf ear to that, but we have to know exactly where we are in the pipeline as far as those chicken houses that are proposed and where we are as far as restrictions.

“When you’re talking about the poultry industry … there are certain regulations already in place. I know a lot of people aren’t going to like that,” Cannon said.

Originally, the property owners wanted 13 chicken houses, but the proposal has been reduced to 10. The redesign is expected to be two sets of five houses each. “We have not seen those plans yet,” Lenox said.

At a well-attended public forum March 22, “there was some degree of comfort when the manager for the CAFOs made the comment there was zero discharge,” Cannon said before being interrupted by an outburst in the audience, in the council chamber, and groans of disagreement.

“Excuse me,” Cannon told them.

“We’re trying to find out from our end if that is a valid point. If you have other information that you think contradicts that, we’re open to hear that. Keep in mind we do have state agencies and federal agencies that are involved in this process. No matter what my opinion may be, they are the ones who are in control of what is dictated to local jurisdictions,” he said.

Councilman Ernie Davis said there were questions state experts, in town for the March 22 event, could not answer, like what would happen if a manure shed spilled over into the PaleoChannel underground water source.

As the audience applauded Davis’ statement, Cannon said he has no bias, but was simply stating the federal government has certain authority. The county’s role is zoning and ensuring chicken houses and manure sheds are built to standards.

Lenox said the zoning draft has three parts – points Council initiated several meetings ago, buffering requirements and an excerpt from the existing zoning code regarding special exceptions.

The Right to Farm section includes provisions for nuisance complaints and resolution.

Concerning road access, the code states all chicken houses must have access to a county road with an opening of 50 and 60 feet because of the size of poultry trucks, to allow them to get onto and off country roads without having to go onto private property to turn around.

Councilman Joe Holloway asked how residents in neighborhoods learn about plans for new chicken farms. Lenox said he finds out about them when his office receives requests.

Holloway said there were rumors about chicken houses being built in the Shavox Road area, but he couldn’t find any information, even though he talked to a property owner in the area. The owner told him the property is not for sale and won’t be used for poultry houses.

“Apparently there is some information being spread around and I want folks to be able to know what is true and what is not true. This misinformation got a lot of people upset,” Holloway said.

Lenox said it would be impossible to put a poultry house in a Designated Growth Area. The draft applies to all areas in the county, not just Salisbury, including rural areas and villages.

“You protect Hebron the same way you would protect Salisbury and you would do Parsonsburg as you do Pittsville,” he said.

New regulations would apply even where neighbors have no concerns about chicken operations. But Councilman Joe Holloway asked if it’s fair to restrict those areas. “I am hearing concerns. Farmers don’t want any more restrictions on them,” he said.

After the meeting, County Executive Bob Culver said the Council “did an excellent job talking about different points everybody brought up concerning setbacks, buffer zones, that kind of thing.”

“You’re not going to make everybody happy. Some of the restrictions these people want to put on are not our choice. They are state mandated. What we control is zoning. We control setbacks,” he said.

“Both the council and executive office do not want to lose the chicken industry. Wicomico County has a lot going for it. We don’t want to alienate anybody. We want people to come with diverse ideas, but the poultry industry is very important to us,” Culver said.

Newly proposed zoning will be drafted, reviewed by the planning commission and returned to the Council. A public hearing will be scheduled before council approval.

Once approved, the regulations would become law in 60 days, Culver said, adding he has asked it be considered emergency legislation, to speed the process.


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