2017-05-18 / Front Page

Planning Comm. hears all sides on chicken houses

A full courtroom of over 115 people attended the hearing before the Planning Commission Tuesday. A full courtroom of over 115 people attended the hearing before the Planning Commission Tuesday. The anticipated meeting of the Wilkes County Planning Commission to hear public input concerning a proposed ordinance to govern land use rules for new poultry houses in the county saw a crowd of about 115 residents and farmers present ideas, suggestions, and recommendations to members of the board.

With strict rules of procedure and decorum in place, 25 of those attending spoke about the issue.

Beginning months ago with a moratorium imposed by the county on the building of new chicken houses, the issue came to the forefront when the moratorium was about to expire and a group of citizens urged its extension and then proposed a new ordinance to govern new poultry houses in Wilkes County.

The new ordinance, based on one in Greene County, among other things, would establish new setbacks, fees, and site requirements. Wilkes proponents contend that the ordinance would help with water and air quality, odor, and other environmental issues, others are satisfied with the Land Use Ordinance already in place.

ABRAMSON ABRAMSON Planning Commission members will meet again next Tuesday, May 23, to consider the comments made and then make a recommendation, at some point, to the Wilkes County Board of Commissioners. That recommendation will likely be a modified version of the proposed “Greene County” ordinance, or a new ordinance drafted by the Planning


Selected comments from Tuesday’s hearing are included here, in the order they were presented.

“I believe our biggest risk is not coming from our poultry farmers in Wilkes County, but rather out biggest risk is from people who live outside Wilkes County,” said Wayne Williamson, a lifelong resident of Wilkes County who live on Newtown Road, an area especially affected by poultry houses. “They may or may not care about how they affect the quality of life in Wilkes County as long as it doesn’t affect their operations – because they don’t live here ...

MOORE MOORE “But we have to develop an ordinance that pertains to all poultry farmers. The ordinance needs to provide a sufficient level of protection for our citizens but at the same time not be an undue burden on the poultry farmers.”

Williamson favored the Greene County ordinance as a “working document” from which to build, but said, “It should not be so weak that it does not benefit anyone. It must contain some substance.”

Former Wilkes County Commissioner Donna Hardy remembered her life growing up when “we all worked together to make it just a wonderful community. It has always been a wonderful community. We don’t make rules and laws for people who try to get along – we make them for people who don’t try to get along. And it’s sad that we have to put those laws and regulations in place.”

RITZ RITZ She advised the members to “please take into consideration what is best for the community. I am concerned about my air quality, my well water, and with keeping a good attitude with my neighbors.”

Judy Marks of New Smyrna Church Road compared the poultry industry in Wilkes County to the mining of kaolin in Washington County, calling it a “messy, destructive, but necessary industry. For many years [the kaolin industry] was not regulated and so once the mining was completed, the companies just moved on. It was not until it was regulated and the companies were required to restore the land that Washington County could hope to recover from this industry.”

She continued by saying that “Wilkes County is at the point where we are probably going to have more chicken houses, but we are at the point now to have reasonable rules and regulations about density and the disposal of chicken litter.

“It is said that good fences make good neighbors, but in this instance fair and reasonable regulations make better neighbors of industries that want to come into a primarily rural county.”

Ray Moore has been in the dairy business for 30 years and has had chickens since 2005. The latter was good for the former, he said.

“That’s most of the reason we’re still in the dairy business right now. It enhanced the feed we were able to grow, did away with our fertilizer bill, and just made it more profitable.

“Chicken houses provide a real good opportunity to keep our young people here,” he continued. “I have five families that live out of my farm. If you take all the employees in Wilkes County, it makes up a lot of workforce.”

Susan Abramson of Newtown Road pointed out that the proposed “Greene County” ordinance is not about chicken houses already built and neither does it apply to dairies. She expressed concern that a buildup of poultry houses could, among other things, cause reduction in property values.

“Wilkes County should pro-actively reduce the problems that poultry houses can cause rather than disregarding the real potential for harm to the community,” she said. “The poultry house land use ordinance recently adopted by neighboring Greene County provides a sensible model for Wilkes County by striking a fair balance between the interests of poultry houses and the well being of the rest of the community.”

For a new chicken house, she said, the proposed ordinance would require, among other things, a special use permit; site plan; buffer zones; setbacks of 500 feet from property lines, 1,000 feet from residences, and 1,500 feet from public areas like churches and schools; a one-time fee based on the number of chickens; and operations of more than six houses would have to file a water use plan.

“The best solution is to adopt the proposed ordinance and give it a chance. Then if needed, revise it, change it, but give it a chance,” she said.

Agreeing that setbacks are important, Sharon Liggett of Newtown Road, further advised that vegetative buffers “are not horribly expensive and do a lot of good” to filter dust and feathers and to interrupt the wind.

David Toburen encouraged the commissioners to “look at this ordinance as a beginning for good practices, not trying to put anybody out of business.”

Scott Kennedy operates four broiler houses and said he believes the current ordinance is sufficient.

“After reading the ordinances, it is very evident that they were not intended to regulate the growth of the poultry industry but to stop it altogether,” he said. Kennedy has five-year-old twin boys and hopes his four-house operation is enough to provide for them.

“But I want the opportunity to grow, if I need to. And when they grow up, if they want to farm, I want them to have the same opportunity that I had,” he added. “Our current regulations do this and still provide space for our neighbors.”

Continuing, Kennedy said, “There are certain aspects of agribusiness that you have to accept when you live in this area.

“I am a producer and I have no worries or concerns whatsoever with [the issues of water, air quality, and environmental concerns], nor would I intentionally try to pollute my own or my community. Why would I not want clean water and air, and productive land for my family. I would not have built poultry houses if I believed my family or neighbors would be harmed.”

Kennedy offered a list of Georgia counties each of which has more poultry houses that Wilkes County, some as much as four times as many. “Are these people in these counties sick, without water, or living in a maimed environment? It’s actually just the opposite” he said.

“Having a good poultry industry is good for Wilkes County,” he continued. “People spend their money where they make it. Electricity, fuel, tires, propane, parts, building supplies and other services that I need are all purchased locally. That’s a major reason that counties with poultry houses have better local economies.”

Fourth generation Wilkes County farmer Wilkes Barnett said, “Ag land is ag land. Anyone who owns land zoned agricultural should know and expect that its inherent positives and negatives cannot be reshaped to somebody’s residential ideas.

“I think it’s a generally a bad idea to inhibit viable growth in tough economic times especially in a small specialized economy like Wilkes County. It should be the mission of local government to nurture economic growth, not set limits.”

“I believe that most of the poultry farmers in Wilkes County possess good will and strive to be good neighbors and good stewards of land that they work and that they own,” said Danny Agan. “The wild card is owners who do not have the same sense of personal responsibility to be conscientious. This is why laws and rules have to be in place to look out for everyone’s best interest.”

Commenting on what he had heard to this point in the hearing, Doug Abramson said, “The suggestion seems to be that poultry house owners should be able to regulate themselves and shouldn’t be subject to new rules. The problems that come with poultry houses don’t stop at the owner’s property line. New rules are needed, precisely because poultry houses can damage others, especially nearby neighbors due to water concerns, reduced land values, odors, and the like.”

In other comments, he said that “the question before the Planning Commission is whether to amend the Wilkes County Comprehensive Land Use Ordinance to reduce the risks and nuisances caused by poultry houses while not unduly impacting poultry house operations.”

A relatively new (365 days) resident and 23- year military veteran, Fran Omar was the only speaker to draw loud spontaneous applause.

“You have to come up with a compromise here between the poultry houses and the people,” he advised. “And I don’t think it’s the community that you have right now. I think it’s the ones we don’t know are going to come in.

“I spent a lot of my time in the military and I enjoyed it. I came here to spend the rest of my life here. I love it here and I’m going to continue to do that,” he continued. “The only think I’d ask anybody to do is, when you go through these things, think of everybody and put yourselves in their shoes, as well as the person with the chicken farms. If you look at both sides of that coin fairly, and when you walk out your door, what do you want to see? That’s what you need to look at when you write that rule.”

Eddie Walker’s family built the first chicken house in Wilkes County in 1962 and he said he has probably spread more chicken litter and anyone else in the county. However, he pointed out that he tries always to be considerate of his neighbors, knows their birthdays and when they are cooking out so as not to do the spreading when it might spoil their plans.

Walker said, in his opinion, the Greene County ordinance is “too restrictive.”

The last speaker was Casey Ritz, professor of poultry science at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “There have been a lot of great comments made on both sides and I think that the opportunity to find a balanced ordinance is certainly in place,” he said.

“I would caution you in using the Greene County ordinance as I have a few concerns with it that make it a difficult document to defend.” To that point he enumerated several things from language used to right to farm laws.

Naming other resources available to county governments and poultry farmers alike, he also pointed out that Georgia Department of Agriculture has an inspection program and that plenty of material is available for assistance.

“I want to offer the services of the University of Georgia, he said. “We have a poultry science department which is one of six in the country, and I think we have the best there is. We have a number of individuals who assist poultry companies and citizens every day. The objective is to provide ‘best management’ practices for our poultry farmers so that they can be good stewards.”

In closing, Planning Commission Chairman Kyle Brown explained, “We will be having our time to talk next Tuesday but we wanted a little more time to let your comments soak in to us so we can come up with what we think is fair for everybody to the best of our ability.”

That meeting will be for discussion by members of the Commission and not for public input, although the public is welcome to attend. It is scheduled for Tuesday, May 23, at 5:15 p.m. in the Wilkes County courthouse third floor courtroom.

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Well done Sparky! Good job.

Well done Sparky! Good job. Thanks.