At the February 3, Accomack County Public Hearing for proposed new regulations on Industrial Poultry Operations, Vice-Chairman Robert Crockett took the floor for 15 minutes after the close of public comment. In front of the large crowd, he attacked two nonprofit organizations, Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore and Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper, for what he perceived to be a concerted effort to dismantle the poultry industry. “I believe they want to end the poultry business,” Crockett said. “The longer that we study over this issue, the more chances they have to put out the fear and to put out the propaganda.”
Here is the responsed from CBES:
Attacks Shut Down Dialogue: Good Debate Aids Good Decisions A letter from Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore’s president
Last week the Accomack Board of Supervisors voted in new zoning regulations for poultry growing operations. I believe most folks agree that the new rules are an improvement over the current regulations. The new regulations are not perfect – none ever is. However, I would like to recognize that the Accomack Board of Supervisors had a difficult task balancing an important sector of the economy with a desire to make sure that industrial chicken operations do not damage the livability of the community or harm other important sectors of the economy like tourism or aquaculture. This ordinance reflects that desire for balance.
The attendees and newspaper accounts agreed that the conversation at the public hearing was largely civil, respectful, and balanced. There were poultry growers worried that the new regulations would go too far and damage their livelihoods.There were citizens who are worried about the cumulative effect of this type of operations and whether we are fully considering the risks involved. According to one count, there were 29 speakers, of whom 16 spoke in support of the industry. This is a difficult topic where there is no “right” answer, only levels of compromise.
Unfortunately, one board member, Vice Chairman Robert Crockett, felt it was important after the public hearing to add a speech against what he perceived as “enemies of the poultry industry.” Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore and Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper were the focus of his speech. The core of his attack on CBES was that our recent forum was simply an “anti-poultry” rally. CBES certainly acknowledges the poultry industry was not represented on the panel. Why? Our volunteer forum organizers had concerns that the “opposing” view on poultry expansion was not being heard.
The purpose of the forum was to discuss the risks posed by the rapid growth of new houses hence the panel’s make-up of four scientists, a former Perdue grower, and a representative from an organization that is indeed against “factory farms.” Unfortunately, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and fire department spokespersons were unable to come. Frankly, I also disagree with some of the panelists’ points on the industry. But their presence furthered the CBES objective to get the conversation going about the regulatory environment the industry works in and some of the risks that the poultry industry’s growth poses to our communities.
Unlike Mr. Crockett, I have few worries about citizens not being able to differentiate the extreme from the reasoned portion of the arguments. The poultry industry is also an old master of public relations and they have plenty of experts to reassure us that they pose no risks. The challenge of differentiating fact from fiction in their information is much the same. Of course, there are risks.
We all need to understand them as best we can.
Of all the things I heard from our members after the meeting, what worried me the most was one long-term CBES member who felt intimidated by Mr. Crockett’s speech. She wondered if anyone who opposed his views would be personally attacked like this in the future. I hope that the Accomack Board considers carefully how chilling that sentiment could be in our local government. When a Vice-Chairman of a Board of Supervisors takes a harsh tone, it makes a big difference. Do they really want to encourage that kind of divisiveness and anger in our community? In a time with little citizen involvement already, do you want to make it harder to hear minority viewpoints? However misguided you may perceive CBES actions to be, attacks led by a County Supervisor always hurt our community.
CBES purpose is to try to keep the conversation honest and balanced so that the community can make informed decisions. Our role is particularly important when one side has the resources or power to prevent other points of view from being heard. Many times we pose uncomfortable challenges on difficult topics to important members of our community. We are hardly perfect and sometimes our passion goes too far. But our debates are always guided by the hope that we can make the Eastern Shore of Virginia “better,” even if we struggle to agree on what that means or how to get there.
Good debates make both sides think about their position and often create opportunities for compromise. But a good debate is also respectful and civil. Passion is not the same as anger and combativeness. After the meeting, I talked to several folks who agree with Mr. Crockett’s conclusions. Even they felt he had probably gone too far and taken a tone that was too antagonistic.
I hope to have a chance to re-visit the discussion with Mr. Crockett soon. In the meanwhile, CBES will continue to explore what “balanced growth” should look like in our communities.
Arthur Upshur, President
Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore
CBES, is a nonprofit organization serving Accomack and Northampton Counties since
1988. It is dedicated to promoting balanced growth, enhancing the quality of life of all
our citizens and preserving our cultural and natural resources through education while
promoting open government and citizen involvement