SNOW HILL — Another attempt in a series of efforts by Worcester County resident Larry Ward to level tighter restrictions on poultry houses failed to get off the ground during Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting.
Ward, who is no stranger to the lobbying the commission, came before the body with a text amendment calling for a number of limits and setbacks on poultry houses. Specifically, Ward’s proposal calls for limiting the size of poultry houses to under 3,000 birds, and to impose setbacks amounting to 150 feet in the front yard, and 200 feet in the side and rear. Additionally, no poultry houses could be located within 700 feet of any preexisting dwellings or most buildings.
The code amendment is almost identical to a previous proposal Ward brought to the commission earlier this year, except that he reduced the dwelling and building setbacks from 1,200 to 1,500 feet to the current 700 feet.
Ward defended the seemingly harsh restrictions, pointing out that they would not affect any preexisting poultry houses, and were meant as a preventative measure against what he views as a swiftly growing problem.
“In the past few years, the poultry industry has changed drastically,” Ward asserted, calling the trade “industrialized.”
Commissioner Virgil Shockley, a poultry farmer himself, was critical of Ward’s proposal.
“This would virtually shut down every new poultry house in Worcester County,” said Shockley.
He cited maps drawn with Ward’s proposed setbacks in place which severely limit property where new chicken houses could be constructed. Shockley reminded Ward that poultry has long been a staple of the area’s economy.
“It’s brought a lot of revenue to Worcester County,” he said. “This [poultry] is the backbone of every farming operation whether you have chickens or not.”
Shockley was referring to the fact that many of the crops grown in Worcester cycle directly back to provide feed for chickens, while poultry in turn is responsible for manure used on many farms. Because of the delicate balance, Shockley was loath to crackdown on what he views as a beneficial situation for all involved.
Ward admitted that poultry was tied to the county, but argued that there were alternatives to chicken houses.
“There are options out there now that didn’t exist a few years ago,” he said.
Ward advocated free-range chickens as a substitute to those kept in a poultry house. He mentioned health benefits, both for the consumer and the chicken, and the lack of negative environmental impact. Shockley didn’t dispute that there are a lot of benefits to raising chickens free-range.
“If people in Worcester County want to grow free-range chickens, I don’t know anyone who would have an objection to that,” said Shockley.
Shockley did not believe, though, that free-range was a realistic replacement for traditional poultry houses.
“It’s not the thing that going to hold things together,” remarked Shockley.
Big poultry companies, such as Perdue and Tyson, he added, who have a significant presence on the shore and account for hundreds of jobs, won’t remain if the area isn’t producing enough birds.
“We need to maintain a certain amount of poultry here for the companies to stay,” Shockley said.
As popular as tourism is, he continued, “it’s agriculture that is the No. 1 business.” In Shockley’s opinion, Ward’s proposal would effectively put poultry “out of business by regulation.”
“None of this is set in stone,” said Ward. “This [proposal] is just a piece of paper.”
Ward recognized Shockley’s concerns and expressed a willingness to re-examine some aspects of his amendment if someone on the commission adopted it. He also argued that even if his proposal failed, something needed to be done in regard to the environment and the poultry industry.
“We need to be proactive instead of active,” said Ward.
Shockley again entered the discussion and informed Ward that most poultry farmers run tight chicken houses and take great pains to lessen the industry’s environmental impact. He pointed out that poultry farmers need to be conscious of stormwater management, nutrient management, runoff and a variety of other issues.
Despite Shockley’s resistance, Ward was still hopeful that another member of the commission might adopt his proposal and introduce it as a legislative bill. However, besides Shockley’s counterpoints, Ward’s application had also received an unfavorable recommendation from the Planning Commission.
With all of the arguments against introducing Ward’s setbacks, no one on the commission decided to go to bat for the proposal.
“The poultry industry is very important,” said Commission President Bud Church, telling Ward that the restrictions in the amendment basically served as a “condemnation” of that industry.