SNOW HILL – A draft of new poultry regulations was sent back to the drawing board as the Worcester County Commissioners opted not to introduce the bill at this week’s legislative session.
On Tuesday, none of the commissioners offered the support needed to send the proposed regulations on to public hearing. The regulations, put forth in a text amendment developed by Worcester County Development Review and Permitting staff, received a favorable recommendation from the county’s planning commission earlier this month.
Commission President Jim Bunting said the lack of action was due to the fact that more stakeholder meetings were necessary.
“We got a lot of emails from poultry farmers complaining they didn’t have time to digest everything or have any input,” Bunting said.
He said county officials would meet with Ed Tudor, head of the department of development review and permitting, as well as with area farmers and other stakeholders to go over the amendment currently proposed. Bunting believes all interested parties agree that there’s a need for updated regulations as Confined Animal Feeding Operations become more common.
“I think we’re all agreed there’s a problem with these big chicken farms that aren’t farms,” he said. “They’re big business.”
Development review and permitting employees have been working on new poultry regulations since February when resident Harold Scrimgeour presented them with his suggestions. County staff helped Scrimgeour put his ideas into the form of a text amendment, which he presented to the planning commission in June. Though there was talk of creating a stakeholder committee then, nothing came together. Scrimgeour brought his amendment back to the commission in September. In light of staff concerns, commission members asked Ed Tudor, head of development review and permitting, to submit a staff version of the proposal. It was that version of the amendment that the commission unanimously approved and sent on to the Worcester County Commissioners for consideration.
In a memo to the commissioners, Tudor said the amendment removed poultry houses from the list of agricultural structures in the county code, increased setbacks, established a density limitation and required vegetative buffers, among other things.
“Much like Mr. Scrimgeour’s amendment, the staff version takes a whole new approach to the regulation of poultry operations,” Tudor wrote.
Alan Hudson, president of the Worcester County Farm Bureau, said he’d read the text amendment that had been proposed and had some concerns, particularly about how existing poultry farms would be affected. He says he just wants to make sure that new regulations are done right.
“It’d be good to have a committee of stakeholders sit down,” he said.
Hudson said he was contacted by county officials earlier this year after Scrimgeour submitted his amendment. He said he attended one meeting with county staff and hadn’t had any input since.
“It almost seemed like it was being pushed through too fast without any farmer input,” he said. “We just want to make sure we do it right the first time.”
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw believes input from area farmers is critical in updating poultry regulations.
“I feel they all need to be involved,” he said.
Lockfaw says in recent years farmers have been hit hard with regulations. “I feel the farmers have been through a rough time,” he said, adding that the price of corn was down and wet weather had hurt some crops.
According to Lockfaw the average chicken farm needs only to be a good neighbor, not pointing its fans at a neighboring home for example, while larger farms do need some regulation.
“We need some regulation on mega-farms,” he said. “I don’t think the entire system needs to be reworked.”
Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips, executive director of Assateague Coastal Trust, says the county needs to act quickly. She says citizens have made it clear they don’t want local agricultural lands industrialized and that it’s the duty of the county’s elected officials to protect the resources that make the area special.
“Our economic base is not industrial poultry production. It is tourism and a sustainable diverse agricultural system that protects the small farmer,” Phillips said. “Frankly, the commissioners need to go further than the proposed setbacks and regulate this as heavy industry, not farming. The longer they delay, the more permit applications will get into the pipeline exempting these industrial Confined Animal Feeding Operation developments from the new regulations.”
She went on to say that perhaps county leaders could consider a moratorium on new poultry operations until a text amendment is finalized.