The Somerset County Planning Commission is considering tighter zoning regulations for poultry houses, but has rejected both a moratorium on building proposed new houses that are much larger than current poultry houses and a health ordinance that would have allowed prosecution for violations as some neighbors had requested.

The commission has been studying its zoning ordinance for the better part of a year, since residents along the Backbone Road corridor complained about the size of the poultry houses being built in Princess Anne and the way they are being integrated into a rural, residential neighborhood. Within three miles of Backbone Road, 50 large chicken houses have already been built, and more than 67 are in various stages of permitting and construction throughout the county. Many of these chicken houses are large buildings on lots as small as 10 acres, each designed to accommodate 20,000 birds per six-week cycle.

After several public meetings, the Somerset County Planning Commission told the commissioners it was considering the following changes to the zoning ordinances:

  • Increasing side yard setbacks from 50 feet to 75 feet;
  • Increasing the setback from a proposed poultry house to an existing dwelling that is not part of the poultry farm from 200 feet to 400 feet; Creating a new setback of 500 feet from a poultry house’s tunnel fan to an existing home that is not part of the farm;
  • Creating a new setback of 1,000 feet from a tunnel fan to a subdivision of homes;
  • Requiring a special exception from the Board of Zoning Appeals if the poultry grower wanted to exceed 200,000-square feet of floor space for the operation, which amounts to needing the exemption for more than six chicken houses (the new, larger houses are between 34,000– and 44,000-square feet);
  • Requiring a vegetative buffer around the active part of a poultry operation, which would be 20 feet wide.
  • Redesign poultry houses so that the driveways are between the poultry houses instead of along the property lines.

Gary Pusey, the Somerset County planning director, expects the commission to have the exact wording of the recommendations at its September meeting. Then, after an October public hearing on the recommendations, the planning commission will make its recommendation to the county commissioners, who will have to decide what changes to adopt.

The problems with the poultry houses stem from a change in the culture of poultry in both Somerset County and around the country. Eastern Shore residents have become accustomed to farms with one or two poultry houses and a large acreage of crops. In recent years, poultry companies have encouraged farmers to build more houses on smaller parcels, which increases efficiencies for delivering feed, collecting the birds and controlling quality. Residents, particularly lifelong Shore residents, have been surprised to learn that the practical definition of a poultry farm has changed to something without any crops with intensive truck traffic.

“I think, based on what residents told planning members, there was an acknowledgement that there were some things in our zoning code that needed to be revised,” he said. “The planning commission has tried to address that.”

The Planning Commission also heard from epidemiologists at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future about health concerns in locating the poultry farms so close to residences. Some Backbone Road homeowners joined the Assateague Coastkeeper in pushing for a health ordinance that would prioritize homeowners’ rights to a healthy environment. Specifically, they wanted an acknowledgement that a link existed between illnesses, including respiratory ones, and the chicken houses, which emit high concentrations of ammonia. Linn County, MO, has such an ordinance, and it allows local officials to have jurisdiction over such health matters and enforcement powers. Pusey said the commission lacked the expertise to make such recommendations but forwarded the information to the health department in case it wanted to do so.

On the topic of a poultry moratorium, Pusey said, there wasn’t much discussion.

“I think planning commission members that spoke felt it would send a chilling message to the poultry industry in general,” he said. “They felt that a moratorium would be a drastic measure that was not warranted at this time.”