Setting precedent a dangerous misstep
Over the last few weeks, the chicken litter has been flying in Cecil County.
An organized group of concerned citizens have been vocally opposing a planned chicken farm in the Zion area, which is currently properly zoned and permitted. They argue that they purchased homes near the Horst family farm because it was a farm, but the current proposal appears more like factory production rather than Old MacDonald. They fear that the construction of four large chicken houses with 37,800 chicks in each house and five flocks per year would pollute the nearby air, land and water, while also decreasing property values.
“This is a fundamental change with these giant chicken houses,” resident David Nolan told the county council at a meeting earlier this month. “The concerns of 400 households should be weighed with that of one farmer.”
Resident Brian Frymiare, who has organized several community meetings on the issue, called on the council to issue a moratorium on chicken farm construction until the issue could be investigated.
“The cost of not stopping this will be tremendous to this county, you will burn this county down financially; our real estate, schools and nursing homes will be devastated,” he said.
Such grassroots campaigns have had success elsewhere, as Somerset County, which has several large chicken houses, recently passed stricter regulations on how and where new poultry houses can be built.
Despite increasing public pressure, however, Cecil County officials continue to weigh their options.
“At this point, we are not considering any changes,” County Executive Tari Moore told the Whig, noting that this process is underway and any action to change the rules could prompt a lawsuit. “We can’t change in the middle of the stream.”
“We’re reviewing all the information, but we must allow for due process,” she added. “We are a ‘Right to Farm’ county and we support agriculture in our comprehensive plan and strategic plan.”
Council President Robert Hodge, who visited a similar, smaller operation to the proposal in Earleville, said the council is “taking the issue very seriously while trying to separate facts from fiction.”
But during a Citizen’s Corner meeting with dozens of the project’s opponents, Hodge also rightly raised the example of the county’s past lawsuit over the Rose’s Diner project. At that time, a methadone clinic wanted to locate into the former Route 40 property in Elkton, but raised the ire of nearby residents who approached the then-Board of County Commissioners. Led by a three-member voting bloc, the board retroactively passed regulations that squeezed the clinic off the property, and in turn the developer sued the county. The result? Cecil County lost the lawsuit and its insurance policy was forced to pay out $450,000, Hodge said.
“There’s a right way to do this and a wrong way. Once you let the horse out of the barn, it’s hard to put it back in,” he told the chicken farm opponents.
We agree that the county should not set a precedent on this issue by attempting to retroactively prohibit the properly zoned project. While county zoning regulations require a setback of 300 feet from an existing home on an adjacent lot, the Horst proposal is more than 500 feet from the nearest homes.
Should the county attempt to intervene, what kind of message does that send to future employers looking to locate here? Setting such a precedent could have damaging repercussions long into the future.
Meanwhile, we also sympathize in the plight of the homeowners and suggest they look to convene a roundtable or committee with county officials to study current regulations and suggest improvements to subjects like notification, setbacks and monitoring.