Planning Commission’s Work to Regulate Mega Projects Generates Farmer Concerns

By Lon Anderson
Moorefield Examiner

The meeting of the Hardy County Planning Commission may have been held on the first day of September, but its focus continued to be the same as it was for June, July and August: how best to regulate future mega-projects on agricultural-zoned land.

This effort was prompted by the surprise construction of the $10 million, 20-poultry house “mega-project” now underway on 95 acres in the Old Fields area.

And like those previous meetings, more than a dozen concerned citizens showed up to monitor and/or express concerns about the draft regulations being considered by the Commissioners. Some represented the growers or Pilgrims, while others were residents of the Old Fields area near the project, which may be the largest in the state and is expected to house more than a million birds.

While the meeting was somewhat contentious, with strongly held views on both sides, there was some real progress, noted Commission President Lee Lehman, as the Commission, for the first time, was able to work its way through the entire draft regulation document provided by consultants, and tentatively fill in some of the parameters that might be applied, should the draft be utilized.

That said, Lehman reminded everyone multiple times during the meeting that the process is still in its early stages, and not to jump to conclusions about what the ultimate solution might look like. Any change to the zoning ordinance, he noted, would have to be approved by the County Commission, and then only after public hearings have been held by both the Planning Commission and the County Commission.

For now, however, the poultry growers and their industry, and the residents representing the Old Fields homeowners could not be further apart.

The Old Fields’ residents bolstered their case for the need for regulation by providing a study they had commissioned by the Grobbel Environmental and Planning Associates of Michigan. Old Fields resident Steve Pendleton provided the 35-page document which analyzed many of the key issues and asserted that “due to the inadequacies within the Hardy County Zoning Ordinance, this permit application (for the Old Fields mega-project) should not have been approved.” The study then went one step further and suggested that “the February 14 Improvement Location Permit, therefore, is invalid and void.”

Lehman responded that “I don’t know what the next step is, but I don’t think this body can say the permit is void. That would have to be done at another level.”

Not to be outdone, the West Virginia Poultry Association submitted a letter from its Board asserting that much of the regulatory structure being proposed is “irrelevant…in any planned zoning as these operations will (already) adhere to state and federal guidelines.”

The Growers’ letter, which its president Daryl See read to the meeting, also reminded that the “West Virginia poultry industry alone employs over 2,500 people,” and “it also contributes over $100 million to the state in annual payroll and grower pay.”

“With the stringent proposal that is being suggested,” See concluded, “the poultry industry will not be able to grow and will be forced out of Hardy County and the Potomac Valley. Do you truly want the amenities of Hardy County to become vacant buildings accompanied with the significant negative effects due to the demise of the economy?”

With battle lines clearly drawn, Lehman asked Staff Assistant Ben Martin to lead the Commission through a discussion of the various options presented in the draft regulations, which not only focused on offering ways to constrain the size of poultry operations, but also any other potentially large operations such as cattle or swine farms, referred to in smaller sizes as “animal feed operations” (AFOs) and the larger as “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs).

An early question focused on how many, if any, poultry houses could be given administrative approval, and not required to go through zoning hearings. The draft suggested that building two CAFO poultry houses might be appropriate for a simple administrative approval.

However, two CAFO houses could exceed the number of birds to be allowed (in the accompanying charts) if the applicant was seeking to build the large (63’ X 704’) houses, Martin noted.

“But some integrators offer smaller houses which could mean the number of birds would allow three to four houses to be built,” noted Commissioner Tyler Bradfield. And so the discussions moved on with this unanswered.

The discussion got more technical as the Commissioners tackled such questions as “should AFOs or CAFOs be permitted for conditional uses in commercial (zoned) districts?”

Commissioner George Leatherman suggested that such operations “ought to be scrutinized a little more if they’re being considered in a commercial district,” thus requiring conditional use permits.

Commission Vice President Greg Greenwalt concurred: “You’ve got restaurants, hospitals, and schools in commercial zones.”

In a discussion about the application process for construction of a facility, there were lots of options about what should be required. The Commissioners agreed that the following should be included: the proposed number of animal units; the total acreage of the site of the facility; existing and proposed roads and access ways within and adjacent to the site, and location of all existing and proposed structures and water features including adjacent wells.

At this point Michael Sullivan from Pilgrims observed that “well maps in the County are in pretty bad condition,” and noted that all maps are not there, and some wells have been added and others are missing.

“It maybe difficult or expensive but I don’t want to discard this – maybe they’re not necessary for the lowest level of AFO but on others,” Lehman responded.

“It’s a very low threat to wells because of the way they are installed and sealed,” Sullivan responded. “I can’t say that about cattle feed lots, which are often a source of stream pollution.”

“We can come back to the wells issue,” Lehman said and moved on.

Next up for inclusion with the application was “a map of prime and statewide soils in the project area.”

“I think it would be important to include this,” said Bradfield.

The reasoning is, it is preferable not to have strong growing land taken up with acres and acres of structures, especially since preservation of these soils is a state and federal imperative.

Setback distances were also discussed for possible inclusion with the application. A chart in the draft suggested distances which could be required from other buildings and property lines.

“The farther back you set the offsets, the less land (the farmer) will have available, and you will be telling the farmer that he may not be able to put his land to its best use for his family,” local engineer Kirk Wilson said.

The draft also suggested an odor management plan be included with the application. “This might be a little more encroaching than we want to see,” Martin noted.

“This is all about housekeeping,” Sullivan said. “It’s all about how one keeps the exterior of the houses, and I don’t see how a vegetation buffer does anything to impact smell. What I’ve found living around the houses is I don’t smell them. What I do smell is the fields when they put the litter on them.”

The draft regulation also suggested including a mortality management plan in the application.

“What would you want to ask someone about how they would take care of a major mortality event?” asked Martin.

“That’s a good starting point,” responded Commissioner George Leatherman, “but they have to have a plan in place about how they’re going to deal with it when the power goes out (and kills all the birds).”

“Mortality is regulated by the State Department of Agriculture, so that’s not an item that needs to be included,” said Sullivan.

“So why put an item in place when they already have to be reviewed by the state?” asked Allen Collins of Pilgrims.

The proposed inclusion of a vegetative buffer in the application process also stimulated the conversation. Martin noted that they have gotten some guidance on this from Delmarva – the Delaware, Maryland, Virginia peninsula, where poultry farms are prevelent.

“I think this is especially dependent on the individual site,” Leatherman said.

“Remember that Delmarva is flat land,” Collins said. “It’s different landscaping than here where we can sometimes use the land as a buffer.”

“Again, you’re adding significant cost to the building of a house,” Sullivan noted.

“Or should vegetation buffers be taken on a case-by-case basis as part of the conditional land use?” asked Martin.

“Yes,” responded Lehman. “The location will make a lot of difference.”

“But if you regulate the vegetative buffer, then wouldn’t you have to reduce the required buffer (distance)?” Sullivan asked.

“That would not be good for the homeowners,” countered an Old Fields resident.

“So you want both?” asked a surprised Tim Cullers of Pilgrims. “That’s less land (for the grower).”

Another item that concerned the poultry folks was the suggestion that inclusion of an environmental impact statement be considered.

Wilson asked how many had read an environmental impact statement? No hands went up. “They are usually only for federal projects and can cost $250 – 300,000 or more and can take years to complete. You don’t need an environmental impact statement,” Wilson said emphatically.

“Yes you do,” countered Lloyd Foltz, Jr., a resident of Old Fields, who mentioned concerns such as being able to eat the fish you catch from the streams and the uptick in allergies and the health of children that could all be impacted by living close to these mega- projects.

The discussion then turned to more general concerns about costs and burdens on the growers. “If you build two houses today, you can’t support a family,” noted Commissioner Tim Wilkins, who is also a poultry farmer in Mathias.

“You know it costs $600,000 just to build one of the large houses,” said Sullivan.

“And there’s still a chance if I do all that’s required, that after a public hearing I could still be turned down, even after meeting all of the requirements,” said Collins of Pilgrims. “It comes down to public hearings where the regulations are thrown out the door. They’ll turn it down even if I meet all of the requirements.”

“If BZA turns it down, they have to give you a reason and you can appeal it,” noted Nicole Rohrbaugh, Administrative Assistant in the Planning Office.

“The purpose of the regulations was to regulate the large farms, not hurt the small farms,” noted Pendleton, the Old Fields resident.

“But it will hurt the small farmer,” came the response in unison by several folks.

“I own a thousand acres,” noted Wilkins, “but with these regs in place I can’t build any more houses, and I only have eight. We meet all of the federal and state regulations and I have good relations with all my neighbors. But this will be hurting farmers.”

“I don’t have a problem with people doing what they want on their own land, but when it drifts over to my property, then it is my business,” Pendleton said.

“When you put these regulations in place you’re hurting small farmers, and you’re impacting my family,” Wilkins countered, “and you’ll be pushing farming right out the door.”

“We ‘re willing to compromise,” countered Pendleton.

“But we were there farming long before the residential homes were there,” Wilkins said. “I’m going to be an advocate for farmers and residents, but I’m not going to let residents dictate to me.

“Y’all haven’t yet given (the mega-project) a chance yet—it may not be as bad as you think it’s going to be,” suggested Cullers.

“I think we all need to fall back and regroup,” suggested Lehman, who noted the conversation will continue.

In other business, Rohrbaugh reported that in August the Planning Office issued 25 building permits valued at approximately $2,769,000.

Lehman also announced that the County Commission had agreed to budget changes that would allow the Planning Office “to keep Ben Martin working with us on a part-time basis,” effective that same day. “Ben will be doing research and helping us with revising the County’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan, which is due in 2021.”

The Planning Commission meets the first Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the commission has been meeting at Brighton Park to enable social distancing. The public is invited to attend.