Top of mind at its July meeting for the Hardy County Planning Commission was a review of the actions taken that morning by the County Commissioners concerning enactment of an updated County Floodplain ordinance.
As part of their morning meeting, the County Commission held its first public hearing and gave tentative approval to a new floodplain ordinance.
The plan the County Commission had acted on, however, was not the one that the County’s former Floodplain Manager and Planner, Melissa Scott, had sent them, according to Planning Commission President Lee Lehman. That plan, which had already been reviewed and praised by state and federal floodplain officials and had been worked on and recommended by the Planning Commission was missing in action, so to speak.
“They’re just adopting the state’s (Floodplain) statute,” said Planning Commissioner Robert Williams.
“It’s just the minimum required,” Lehman said. “It presumes anything to be done will be done properly by the (building permit) applicant. I just felt like the one we want is not the minimum. Our plan proposed that (structures’ foundations) have 2.5 feet of freeboard — a half-foot higher than the state, and we separated out agricultural buildings. Theirs lumped in everything together. It’s what you have with no local input.”
Lehman, in fact, had said just about the same thing that morning at the County Commission’s public hearing, urging them to adopt a plan that was more than the minimum required. “I don’t want the county to be penalized in the future because we didn’t do enough,” Lehman said at the morning hearing.
“As FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) becomes more and more strapped for funding,” explained Ben Martin, staff assistant in the Planning Office, “they will come back and ask what extra things you have done to protect citizens.”
“In the future, they may try to figure out ways not to have to pay out so much money, as we have more floodplain incidents,” Lehman said.
Lehman noted that the County Commission’s actions were not final, but just the first step, and that there would be another reading and hearing at the County Commission’s next meeting on August 4.
The other big issue addressed by the Planning Commissioners last week involved the continuing fallout from the so-called “Mega Poultry Complex” now under construction near Old Fields. That complex will have 20 large poultry houses on 95 acres that can hold approximately one million chickens.
Because the County’s current Agriculture zoning ordinance puts few restrictions on farming in an Ag zone, the project was permitted and underway before most in the County, even those living in close proximity, knew anything about it.
At last month’s Planning Commission meeting, about 15 residents who live near the project showed up to express their concerns about the lack of notice and process, the impacts on water and air quality, and damage to property values.
Also, at the County Commission’s meeting earlier that day, Commission President Harold Michael told Lehman the Planning Commission needed to do something about the mega farm issue and those concerning commercial and industrial farming.
In response, Lehman told the Planning Commission, the Planning Office has retained a consulting firm, the Berkley Group, “which will give us guidance on issues like the mega houses and can help us with the Comp (Comprehensive Land Use) Plan” that the Commission is working to update.
“We need expertise in dealing with all of these issues,” Lehman explained. “Now we can pick up the telephone and get some help. We’ll pay by the hour, and the governing body (County Commission) can utilize them too.”
The position of County Planner remains unfilled since Scott’s departure in March, and thus the Commission does not have professional planning expertise available in-house.
The consultants, Lehman explained, “would like us to go over certain possible remedies and when we figure out what we want to do, contact them and they will help us figure out how to do it.” The firm had provided a paper outlining some “proposed paths of response.”
Lehman noted that reasons for regulation might focus on environmental and nuisance impacts, or the threat to prime agricultural soils. And they could be just for poultry houses or could include other animal houses.
“One important item would be distinguishing between the (large) Corporate and LLC operations,” Commissioner Jay Fansler said.
“But an LLC could be a conglomerate or one farmer,” Lehman noted.
“Then limit the square footage,” Fansler said.
“Yes, we could set size limits,” Lehman agreed. “Let’s say four houses is the cutoff, then you have to apply for a conditional use permit if larger. A list of conditions could include setbacks, ingress and egress and the traffic it creates.”
“The type of screening required,” suggested Planning Office Administrative Assistant Nicole Rohrbaugh.
“Is there enough water — that needs to be considered,” Lehman noted. “And what would you do if the avian flu killed all of the chickens — that could be one of the considerations.”
“You’d have to talk to the integrator—they own the chickens,” said Commissioner Robert Williams. “I think they dig a big hole and bury them. I hope they have a plan.”
“Well we didn’t have a 20-chicken house plan,” Lehman countered. “Maybe they don’t have a 20-house plan for chicken mortality.”
“You need to look at commercial cattle operations in West Virginia,” Commissioner Tyler Bradford said, noting that there’s a new large slaughterhouse under construction in Charleston that will be offering just WV beef. He suggested that it may prompt some larger cattle operations in the state to supply it and that Hardy County would be a likely area for such suppliers. “Feed lots are not much better than chicken houses when you look at them close up.”
“A lot of large hog operations in the South were not anticipated,” said Greg Greenwalt, Commission Vice President.
“If we have higher demand for cattle or hogs, I could easily see something happening here,” Bradford added. “I agree with the idea of conditional use.”
“But we really have to define those conditions,” Greenwalt said.
The number two category (provided by the consultant) — protecting prime soils — could be useful as well,” Martin said.
“We already have a GIS prime soils overlay,” Lehman noted.
“Using categories two (Prime Soils) and three (impact and nuisance issues) covers a wider range than just poultry houses,” Rohrbaugh suggested.
“I think the issue of a family or corporate operation is not an issue we need to worry about,” Lehman said.
“Most people bellyache about zoning—they are pretty hard to please,” noted Fansler.
“Ask them what they think about (project) size,” Lehman suggested.
“You might also ask them (consultants) about their experience in Rockingham (County),”
suggested Fansler, since they have experience there and there are similarities with Hardy.
Williams, who is also the developer of the 20-house mega project, noted that it was economics that was causing the push to larger operations. “Say a young man just wants to go out and raise chickens. How many houses are needed?”
“It takes two existing houses for the necessary cash flow,” responded Bradford.
“So it probably takes four if they are new houses,” explained Williams. “My project just brings Pilgrims in line with the supply they need. They still need all of the small farmers. We subsidize the heck out of them, but you just can’t fight the economics. The costs keep rising, the prices stay low. The only alternative is to get bigger. And our project is doing a lot more to address the issues that have been raised than the smaller operations.”
“I’m not against Robert’s project,” said Fansler. “Pilgrims employs a lot of people. I just wish they would come to the table. They’re not keeping up with the cost of living.”
“You have to have an economy of scale to turn a profit,” Martin said. “There’s so much money and risk in this.”
“It’s just very difficult for new people to get in,” Greenwalt said. “You have to build to scale.”
Lehman then reminded everyone that he was still looking for guidance with the consultant.
“I make a motion that we seek guidance from the consultant with a focus on categories two and three,” Greenwalt said. “They may already have recommendations on how to do this, and could give us a workable list.”
The motion carried, but the discussion continued.
“We want to ask the Berkley Group to expedite. If we are meeting just an hour a month, we’re not going to get this done,” Greenwalt continued. “I wonder how they would define “mega projects”?
“It would be nice to know from them what Rockingham and Page counties (where the consultants have worked) do with these issues,” commented Commissioner Tim Wilkins.
“We are going down a path that no one anticipated,” Greenwalt noted.
“We can’t push out agriculture,” Wilkins responded.
“We could go back and revise setback and buffers,” suggested Fansler.
“Already in the County probably in excess of 30-40 percent of the existing poultry houses could not be built today with current zoning,” Wilkins commented. “In Hardy County we have 300-foot setbacks from a dwelling to a poultry house not on the property.”
Two visitors to the meeting were offered an opportunity to comment.
Steven Schetrom urged the Commission to “continue to look beyond immediate short term solutions” to ensure a better process in the future.
Steve Mosely commented that for big chicken houses it doesn’t matter how big they are as long as they don’t impact local homes. Further, air and water studies should be required.
Lehman then turned to their work on the County’s Comp Plan, which must be updated by 2021.
“I will be calling each of you about the information you want addressed in the Comp Plan, or data you think we will need to consider,” said Martin.
“It always seems like we get a schedule set and then we get sidetracked,” Lehman mused.
In other business, Rohrbaugh reported that there were 31 building permits issued for an estimated $1.5 million worth of construction.
She also noted that, per instructions at the previous meeting, she had submitted a letter to the County Commission, with the Planning Commission’s recommendation that three members with expired terms, Tyler Bradford, Greg Greenwalt, and George Leatherman be reappointed. She indicated the appointments were on their July calendar but were removed.
Because this was the Commission’s first meeting of the new fiscal year, they had to select officers. Lehman was nominated for re-election as President and was elected. Greenwalt was then nominated for re-election to be Vice President. Greenwalt noted that might not be a good idea, that he might not be reappointed.
“We’ll deal with that if we have to later,” said Lehman, and Greenwalt was re-elected.