Chicken house moratorium extended; county gets set for solar farm inquiries
The moratorium on granting permits for chicken houses in Wilkes County is now extended in both time and scope. For 60 days hence from last Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners, the ban on chicken house permits now includes all applications, not just those for more than six such structures.
A large number of residents attended the meeting armed with arguments against chicken houses in general and with specific ideas on how they should be regulated if and when they are built. They were prepared to take their stance should the commission move to adopt an ordinance governing chicken houses. With 138 houses already located in the county and permits for 44 more already approved, the county has recognized that there is at least a need for oversight.
However, according to the Wilkes County Land Use Ordinance itself, any modification must be sent through the public hearing stage at the Planning Commission level, according to County Attorney Charles LeGette.
“This needs to get kicked back to the Planning Commission with basically our request that they have the public hearings to get public comment,” LeGette suggested. The process would involve review by Planning Commission, advertising the ordinance, public hearings to receive comments, and then a recommendation to the Board of Commissioners from the Planning Commission.
Working from instructions at the last regular meeting of the commission, LeGette had prepared amendments to the Land Use Ordinance to be considered. The proposal provides that installations of more than six chicken houses would fall into a special use category the permits for which would regulate “the impact on the community and the impact on water sources allowing the Planning Commission to question the applicants’ specific plans as they pertain to buffer zones, vegetative buffers, size, and all kinds of things.” Special use applications also require public hearings with an ad in the paper, LeGette pointed out. “If you get over six, there’s more public notice, there’s opportunity for public comment, and there’s opportunity for the Planning Commission to put more strings on it,” he added.
Commission Chairman Sam Moore agreed that “the correct way to do it is to send it back to [the Planning Commission] to have public hearings.”
Some general facts about chicken houses in Wilkes County are that they are about 50 feet wide and up to 750 feet long, capable of holding as many as 50,000 chickens. Reports of 85,000-bird houses are apparently unfounded, according to Building Inspector Jimmy Toto. While the numbers for Wilkes County may seem high, other northeast Georgia counties are much higher and Moore said that a 2008 report listed 558 chicken houses in Hall County, 690 in Madison County, 746 in Jackson, 820 in Habersham, and 978 in Franklin.
“We have increased but we are nowhere near anything like that,” Moore said, pointing out also that counties like Habersham, Hall, and Franklin are much smaller in size but larger in population and in urban area.
Wilkes County chicken houses seem to be concentrated in the northern and western parts of the county, relatively near and between Rayle and Tignall. The apparent reason for that is that those areas are closer to the processing plants where the chickens must be shipped. Moore indicated that he is of the opinion that those areas are close to the limit for economic feasibility – the distance from processing plants is somewhat limiting. “That’s why there aren’t any in McDuffie County,” he said.
“We have grave concerns over the number of chicken houses that have moved into the county and are moving into the county,” said Susan Abramson, a Newtown Road resident speaking on behalf of a number of the attendees. “I know there is a moratorium in place at the moment, but I hope the commission will take prompt and decisive action to address the health, environmental, safety, economic, and other issues large numbers of chicken houses will invariably have on the county,” she continued. “We ask the commission to ensure a proper balance among the varied agricultural uses in the county, and specifically, we want the commission to continue the moratorium until a good plan is in place to deal with the issues raised by more chicken houses coming into the county.”
Abramson further suggested that a Wilkes County ordinance take key points from the existing Greene County ordinance to include comprehensive site planning, setbacks, buffer zones, waste management plans, water supply and usage plans, notice requirements, and application and impact fees. “Moving in this direction will preserve the current situation, prevent harm, and provide better real world information. It would be a measured starting point enabling the county to see what, if any adjustment should be made,” she said.
Moore responded saying that commissioners are quite familiar with the Greene County ordinance as they are with those of all the surrounding counties. “We have looked at everybody’s around us,” he said, adding that “our setbacks are actually more than Greene County and we addressed those setbacks about two years ago on a recommendation from the Planning Commission. Wilkes County’s setbacks are 1,000 feet from a residence while most are at 600, according to Moore.
Others in attendance had lots of specific ideas and questions about implementation, other possibilities, resultant deterrence for alternate industry, water testing, limitations to specific areas, site definitions and acreage requirements, limitations on the total number allowed, and other things.
“These are the points that need to be brought out when the Planning Commission holds the hearings,” Commissioner Ed Geddings said, and it was his motion that sent the matter to the Planning Commission for further development while establishing a moratorium on any number of chicken houses.
However, the moratorium will not affect those permits for the 44 houses already approved.
In a separate matter involving what may be a real possibility in the near future, the commission adopted an ordinance for the regulation of “the safe and orderly development of solar power in Wilkes County.” LeGette, who drafted the ordinance, pointed out that the county is not trying to prevent such development, just ensuring that provisions are made to do it properly.
“For years we have had people to call us and some have actually talked to our development authority,” Moore reported. “The reason we are looking a little closer at this is because the one they are talking about is a rather large one out in the county.”
Later in the meeting it was disclosed that the latest and biggest proposed site inquiry involves an area near the Tyrone community “off on a dirt road and pretty isolated.”
Moore said that earlier inquiries used to be for 3-5-acre plots but now can be as large as 50 acres. “It’s getting bigger so we felt like we need some setbacks in case a big one might come and impact someone’s property,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do – we’re not trying to stop it.”
The closest such solar farms are in Lincoln, two of them and a third already approved, amounting to about 11 acres.
The ordinance provides for 200- foot setbacks from property lines and rights of way, according to Toto.
“It’s basically a safety issue, trying to contain any fires that might happen on the site,” he said. “We want to keep it on that site and not have it run through somebody’s planted pines that might be next door. We just want to make sure that codes are followed and it’s safe for everybody.”
Toto later pointed out that the danger of fire is very low. “There are no moving parts, no motors, [the panels] just sit there. Probably the only thing that would start a fire is lightning.”
“Considering the alternatives,” said one visitor, “I had rather have that than some of the other things that might come our way. I think it’s a good thing. I think solar power is the way of the future.”
Upon adoption of the ordinance, Moore reminded the audience that the county can always change and update its ordinances. “If somebody comes up with a better idea, we’d be glad to hear it,” he said. “Solar farms are really new to us.”
A final issue of concern which brought residents to the meeting was one of the dumping of some sort of waste on farm land in Wilkes County. Objections to the dumping were centered around the unpleasant smell and the unknown composition of the material being dumped.
However, there is nothing illegal about the dumping and it is permitted as a result of House Bill 529 which was passed in 2009, according to Moore. Also, Moore said that the company is not now the same as in the past and is “much cleaner” than before.
House Bill 529 provides that “no county shall adopt any ordinance regulating crop management or animal husbandry practices involved in the production of ag or farm products on any property where such ag use is in compliance with applicable zoning, if any,” LeGette quoted.
Even though complaints are numerous, Moore said, “There’s nowhere we can go. The politics of it are way above what a county can do. We sent the EPD out there and they took samples. They said everything’s fine.”
The chairman continued and reported that some of these companies have been sued by other counties to no avail. “You can spend all the money you want. I have called county after county that has dealt with it and they cannot stop them because of House Bill 529. They are doing it all over the state.”
LeGette suggested that “the appropriate immediate political pressure for this needs to go to our representatives. They are the ones who voted for this and they need to get the calls.”
“I think we all really care about Wilkes County. That’s why we live here,” said John Carter. “If we’ve been lucky, I don’t think that luck is going to hold out for long because we don’t have much else going on here. We have to do something. They may be able to do that but we have to make it clear that we don’t want it. We want to bring in good people and sustainable businesses and industry. We don’t want the negative aspects of those businesses and industries that want to come here and just dump on our county,” he concluded.
In other business:
. EMA Director Blake Thompson reported on the progress he has made toward procuring new trucks and remounts for his department.
. County Clerk Karen Burton reported that sales tax revenues received for the month of December amounted to $62,689.68 in local option sales tax, $94,448,48 in special purpose local option sales tax, and $90,747.45 in TSPLOST.
All of the commissioners including Esper Lee, Charles Jackson, Clem Slaton, Geddings, and Moore were in attendance along with Burton and LeGette, and a full house of interested and involved citizens.
The next regular meeting of the commissioners will be held on Thursday, March 9, at 6 p.m. in the Wilkes County courthouse with a work session immediately prior in the chairman’s office beginning at 5 p.m.