Chicken farms, once tucked into fields and in mostly rural areas, have come to roost near schools, daycare centers and subdivisions on the Delmarva Peninsula. The change — in both location and density — is prompting local politicians to enact some of their first zoning restrictions on poultry growers.
But many residents contend the changes are window dressing — addressing cosmetic concerns but ignoring the larger problems they have with large-scale poultry operations as close neighbors, such as long-term potential health problems, environmental pollution and property values.
“It’s not the farm of the past. It’s not a family farm. It’s no-land farms, just packing as many as they can put on a parcel of property,” said Lisa Inzerillo, an Eastern Shore native who lives near Princess Anne along a once-quiet country road that now includes dozens of chicken houses. “That’s not the beauty of what we come over to the Eastern Shore to look at. That’s not what makes me proud to live here.”
Wicomico County is the latest to try to increase the buffer between poultry operations and residences, with its council voting in September to require additional setbacks for new chicken houses from other properties. It’s requiring a 400-foot setback for poultry houses from any neighboring building, a 200-foot setback from all property lines, and for tunnel ventilation fans to be at least 500 feet from another property.
Wicomico follows Somerset County, which placed similar restrictions on poultry houses in August, and Accomack County, VA, which passed its poultry restrictions in February. In addition to setbacks, Accomack added a new density requirement of no more than one chicken house per acre. Northampton County, just south of Accomack on the Virginia Shore, passed a 1,000-foot setback in January.
Worcester County, MD, is also considering similar zoning changes.
The limits are fueled by an increase in the number and size of poultry houses and a change in their location from rural areas to ones abutting subdivisions.
Wicomico’s regulations came about after nearly a year of heated discussion between residents angry about poultry operations encroaching on their homes, and an industry that asserts growing operations need to become more concentrated to stay profitable. Prior to the change, the county’s only restriction on chicken houses was a 100-foot setback from all property lines.
“This legislation isn’t perfect. I don’t know anyone who is happy with it,” said Marc Kilmer, a commissioner whose district includes Salisbury. “But we’ve gone from one line in the zoning code to six pages. And a year ago, I didn’t think we needed anything.”
Where growers once managed a few chicken houses per farm, newer operations are popping up closer to residential areas, with up to a dozen or sometimes more “houses” — many nearly twice as long as a football field.
The galvanizing project for the legislation was a proposal to erect 13 chicken houses on Naylor Mill Road on the outskirts of Salisbury, within two miles of dozens of homes and five miles from Salisbury University. The property also sits on top of what’s known as the “paleochannel,” an ancient buried river channel that supplies Salisbury with its drinking water. It would be the largest poultry operation in the county.
From 2013 through 2014, the Delmarva Peninsula gained 141 new poultry houses, according to data obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project. But by July 2015, Somerset County alone had permitted 67 more chicken houses. And since November 2015, Accomack County has 101 poultry houses in the application pipeline. Worcester County, too, is experiencing growth; and even Cecil County, long considered in the commutable range for Baltimore and Philadelphia, is wrestling with several proposed chicken-growing operations.
Two years ago, Maryland changed its permitting process for farms with large poultry flocks or livestock herds. Since then, the number of applications has increased and so has the size, according to Jay Apperson, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, which regulates “concentrated animal feeding operations.” Houses that once were about 500 by 40 feet are now 700 by 70 feet, Apperson said, with up to 13 houses per farm instead of what had been the usual two to six.
In 2014, Apperson said, the state received just four applications to permit new animal feeding operations. In 2015, it got 22, and it has received 32 so far this year. Some of those applications were to replace older, smaller poultry operations, the MDE spokesman noted. The state has also seen an increase in applications to expand existing operations, from two in 2014 to 14 in 2015 and 16 so far this year.
As the number and size of chicken houses has grown, so has public concern over the operations’ effects on human health, property values and the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers.
The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future has outlined the health concerns to several sets of county commissioners and conducted a review of studies outlining the risks of living near broiler operations. Those include increased ammonia emissions into the air, which can cause or aggravate asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory ailments; potential pathogens in the water from chicken waste that can cause digestive ailments and infections; and antibiotic resistance building up because of the drugs fed to the chickens.
Excess phosphorus from the large amounts of poultry manure such operations generate can fuel algae blooms that foul rivers and streams, and ultimately the Bay. Airborne ammonia from the houses’ exhaust fans also precipitates to the ground, where it can run off and add algae-fueling nitrogen to the waterways as well.
Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips and Maria Payan, of the national nonprofit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, have led a coalition of residents to push for zoning changes as well as health ordinances to guard against possible illnesses stemming from living in proximity to poultry farms.
In Wicomico County, concerned neighbors have been attending every council meeting with hopes that the government will address health issues, said Gabby Cammarata, who lives about a mile from the site near Salisbury, on Naylor Mill Road. Armed with studies from poultry operations in other states as well as dairy and swine operations, Phillips has attempted to persuade several counties’ commissioners to establish and enforce health standards for chicken house siting and operations.
Shore officials have modeled their setbacks and ordinances on the Delmarva Poultry Industry’s “good neighbor" best management practices, which includes suggestions for landscaping. But county officials have balked at establishing health-based restrictions. Wicomico Council President John Cannon said some of the reports residents provided were “terribly misleading” because they looked at other states and other animals. Ernest Davis, the one councilman to vote against the ordinance, agreed.
“Instead of looking at data from 10 to 15 years ago from another state where their area doesn’t even look like ours, we should have done a study of our own,” he said.
Davis said he voted against the ordinance because he didn’t think the process was done properly. He said he did not believe there was enough information about true health consequences, and he was disappointed that the two sides did not come together prior to the vote to talk about compromises. Residents like Inzerillo had pushed for such negotiations, hoping they might result in stricter measures than the poultry industry recommends.
Davis and others also expressed unhappiness with how the public-input process changed at the last minute before the meeting, so fewer people were allowed to voice concerns. For August’s public hearing on the zoning changes, the council had declared that residents had to sign in before the hearing began if they wanted to speak. Officials decided to keep that practice in place for the decisive vote in September, even though the regular practice is not to restrict people from speaking during the public comment period at council meetings. Cannon said he would revert to the old system for future hearings.
The Naylor Mill applicant, Zulfiqar Ahmed of Northern Virginia, did not speak at the hearing. Several poultry farmers did attend. At least one poultry farmer, Charles Wright, testified in favor of the ordinance. Lee Richardson, a Wicomico County chicken farmer who grows for Perdue Farms, said in an interview after the hearing that the increased setback requirements will help the chicken industry expand while protecting residents. Richardson has four chicken houses in a rural area; his father has two. But operations like his are not cost-effective to build today, he said, given all of the new government requirements for stormwater management, erosion and sediment control and manure management.
“It’s a different type of farm that’s coming in now. Is it wrong? I can’t say that. But it’s different from our situation,” he said.
Poultry grower Dan Parsons, who has five chicken houses, said that he didn’t see the need to do more because he believed state and federal regulatory agencies already protect public health.
“I know that MDE is strict,” Parsons said. “They always have the public and health taken into consideration.”
But neither the MDE nor the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates — or even monitors — air emissions from poultry houses, one of the primary health risks raised by concerned residents and the Hopkins center.
Margaret Barnes, a businesswoman in Salisbury who has become concerned about the local air quality’s effects on her and her 8-year-old son, blasted the commissioners for not doing enough to protect the public.
“You have chosen willful negligence,” she said. “You do not care about the people.”
Phillips said that she’s disappointed that many projects in Wicomico County were grandfathered in before the new setbacks were required, and she wished there had been more limits. But for many of these counties, she noted, the zoning changes mark the first time residents have challenged a powerful industry and won some concessions.
“I tell them, ‘You guys, you did it,’” she said. “’It may not be everything that everybody wanted, but you moved a mountain, you really did.’ ”