Cecil County Chicken War: McCarthy Boosts Buffers; Councilor Patchell Urges Zoning Review, with Farm Rights Respect
Which came first: the chicken or the executive order?
After months of loud citizens versus farmers feuding over the future of large chicken farms in Cecil County with no clear resolution in sight, there are now some menu alternatives on the county government’s plate: a largely symbolic “executive order” proposed by County Executive Alan McCarthy late Friday afternoon (3/3/2017) and a broader review of county zoning laws– especially where they are even more lax than the poultry industry is willing to accept—suggested by County Councilor George Patchell (R-4) on Tuesday (3/7/2017).
It’s almost like a menu choice between a plain hard-boiled egg and a delicate frittata with a choice of tasty add-ins. But both chefs are being careful to respect the basic ingredients in their recipes.
Cecil County local government meetings have been dominated for the past six months by a small but very vocal group of angry north county residents complaining about a planned chicken farm near Calvert, and a growing contingent of farmers speaking out about what they see as a “newcomers” assault on their rights to conduct their operations under long-established “freedom to farm” laws. It has been a clash that has caught up the County Council and County Executive Alan McCarthy in a cross-fire of conflicting concerns.
McCarthy met early Friday afternoon with representatives of the “Calvert Alliance,” a group of residents who have actively opposed a new organic chicken farm, with four chicken houses in which uncaged chickens wander freely and will have access to outdoor areas in which to walk, peck and drop their “deposits.” The Horst family, which has for generations operated a cow and cattle operation on the more than 220-acre farm, far exceeded county zoning regulations for setbacks, buffer areas and environment concerns, and has complied with rules set by its planned contract with Perdue Farms, which sets its own standards for chickens it buys from growers and transports to a Delaware site for slaughter.
Shortly after that meeting, McCarthy issued an “executive order” directing the county’s Soil Conservation District, which reviews “nutrient management” plans for animal agriculture operations, to also consult with the county’s Planning and Zoning department to co-ordinate “buffer” areas between chicken farms and nearby properties. The current zoning law does not specify “vegetative buffers” as proposed in the executive order. McCarthy said his proposal would provide for “collaboration between the Cecil Soil Conservation District and the Department of Planning and Zoning, together with the application of rigorous regulation by the Maryland Departments of Agriculture and the Environment [that] will protect the public health and environment without the necessity of amending the County’s Zoning Ordinance.”
But also on Friday, County Councilor George Patchell (R-4) put an item on the agenda for the Tuesday Council worksession to review possible zoning options on chicken farms. Patchell told Cecil Times that he received no advance word of McCarthy’s executive order and did not learn of it until Monday, and McCarthy told CECIL TIMES he did not learn of Patchell’s proposed Council discussion agenda item until Monday as well.
Patchell took a strong, but balanced, stance on the issue at Tuesday’s worksession, saying that he was an absolute supporter of farmers’ “freedom to farm” rights. But he noted that Cecil County’s regulations are even more lax than standards that the poultry industry itself is willing to accept. “We should at least be consistent” with the industry’s own standards, Patchell said.
Patchell said he was “tired” of hearing lots of local complaints with no action to review standards and see where the county was behind on “common sense” compromises that could address concerns of both local residents and farmers. He said he reached out to county executives of other Eastern Shore counties with much larger, and older, chicken industry presence at meetings of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) and learned of regulations that were more stringent than Cecil’s and explored the reasons why. He said the County Council should at least review possible alternatives, but he emphasized that he was committed to respecting farmers’ rights to make a living on their land.
At Patchell’s request, County Council Manager James Massey compiled a chart listing Cecil County’s zoning regulations on poultry farms, requirements set in other counties on the Eastern Shore with chicken farms, and a voluntary “Good Neighbor” policy promoted by the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc. (DPI), a trade association for chicken producers. In most cases, Cecil County’s zoning rules were either silent on chicken farms or had minimal regulations, even less in some instances than the standards endorsed by the industry itself.
For example, Cecil County zoning rules provide for a 100 foot setback of chicken houses from all property lines, while the DPI itself supports a 200 foot setback from a public road, with a 100 foot setback from other property lines. And in a key question, Cecil County zoning rules provide for just a 300 foot setback from a neighboring residence, while the DPI calls for a 400 foot setback. The DPI standard would also apply to a neighboring church, school, public building or daycare center.
Cecil County currently has no regulations requiring a “vegetative buffer” between a poultry farm and nearby properties, while the DPI calls for a 25-foot or 50-foot buffer. Cecil County also has no regulations for a landscaping plan for such sites while the DPI plan calls for landscaping plans consistent with guidelines published by the US Department of Agriculture.
“We sit here month after month with a roomful of constituents asking for our help,” Patchell said. The Council should address the issue, with respect for farmers’ rights as well as local residents’ concerns, “whether we do it independently or with the county executive,” Patchell added.
County Council President Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) told Patchell he should work with the county executive and the county Farm Bureau on any possible zoning revisions “if you feel that strongly about it.” She cautioned that county farmers are very concerned about the chicken farm question as a potential wedge issue that could limit their legally-protected rights to farm.
In an interview with CECIL TIMES on Tuesday, McCarthy said he was more than willing to meet with Patchell to discuss the issues and that he agreed the county should at least look at proposals endorsed by the DPI/chicken industry leaders. “I’m willing to look at anything that is sound, sensible and reasonable,” he said. He also said he phoned Patchell on Tuesday to discuss the issues but was unable to reach him yet.
McCarthy said he took a firm position in his Friday meeting with the anti-chicken group that he would respect farmers’ rights and was concerned with the feedback he received, including suggestions by some of the Calvert group that they would only be satisfied if there were no more chicken farms at all in Cecil County.
McCarthy, who is a licensed veterinarian and holds an undergraduate science degree, said he has asked repeatedly for sound scientific evidence of the alleged health harms that chicken foes have claimed but they have not been able to provide solid scientific research of their claims. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report on activists’ health adviser testimony before the County Council and councilor’s response on lack of answers to their questions: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/09/health-expert-cries-fowl-on-chicken-farms-cecil-co-council-questions-science/ ]
Patchell’s move on Tuesday fired a shot across the bow of county government on the issue that has been simmering quietly behind closed doors for months, according to sources. Some Councilors have suggested that chicken farms should only be allowed in the NAR and SAR zones (northern and southern agricultural reserve zones) but that would deprive farms zoned for Agriculture in other areas of their rights. And the Horst farm challenged by the anti-chicken group is in the NAR zone.
Some Councilors have suggested greater setback requirements than currently set by county zoning law. But no consensus has been reached in the private discussions.
But now Patchell has addressed “the chicken in the room” and brought the issue out into the open, for more thoughtful consideration of all sides of the issues.
This is not the first time that Patchell, usually a quiet member of the County Council, has stepped into the breech when his fellow lawmakers were reluctant to address major issues. Two years ago, other members of the Council gave a virtual blood-oath to the county school system to resist even discussions of any potential budget cuts to the schools at a time when the county was facing serious fiscal problems. Only Patchell spoke up and suggested potential reasonable spending cuts, even though he knew he would be vastly out-voted by others who had “taken the pledge” not to even discuss possible schools spending cuts.
At that time, CECIL TIMES gave Patchell a “Gold Star” for courage and common sense. We’re giving Patchell another “Gold Star” now for his common sense suggestions to address the chicken fight with a thoughtful review that would respect both sides of the issue.