After the September 28th work session by the Northampton Board of Supervisors, many left the room thinking that the board had put in place measures that would finally keep the poultry industry out of the county. In the October 4th edition of the Mirror, the story ‘Severely limits poultry operations…’ was published, and in it, we noted that due to the requirement of ammonia scrubbers as well as 500 foot setbacks, the chances of anyone being able open a chicken house in this county was fairly small. During the last meeting of the County Supervisors, Spencer Murray, during public comments, charged that recent headlines in local media were misleading in regards to ammonia scrubbers, as well as setbacks. Going back and critically reading the proposed zoning document, we discovered we were wrong, and had completely misread the intent, or at least did not follow the logic of the proposed ordinance to its logical conclusions. Here are the parts of the ordinance that relate to industrial poultry farming:
(C) Minimum standards for intensive farming shall be as follows:
(1) All standards set forth in subsection (A) and (B) above shall apply.
(2) Intensive farming uses, structures and buildings for the purposes including but not limited to, waste storage, disposal practices, storage, shelters, grazing, pasture, feeding, handling and containment shall be setback as follows:
(a) A minimum of 300 feet from all rights-of-ways;
(b) A minimum of 500 feet from property lines, except this may be reduced to 200-feet if there is 200 feet in width of mature woodlands and ammonia scrubbers are used to actively capture emissions . These same mature woodlands used to secure a reduction in setbacks must be preserved, neither thinned nor harvested, during the life span of the associated intensive farming;
(c) A minimum of 2,000 feet from the limits of an incorporated town;
(d) A minimum of 1,500 feet from Village (V), Hamlet (H), Cottage Community (CTCM) and Town Edge (TE) zoning districts; and
(e) A minimum of 2,000 feet from shorelines and perennial streams.
(5) Ammonia scrubbers shall be installed and operational in all animal containment buildings.
On page 56, it states that ammonia scrubbers are required, and directly conflicts (contradicts) language on page 55– that using a scrubber is a choice; however, the scrubber mandates on page 56, in essence, eliminates the 500 foot setback completely. So, if anyone wants to break new ground in Northampton, and place scrubbers in the chicken house, the setbacks would only be 200 feet.
The troubling issue is that requiring an ammonia scrubber on a chicken house is not found anywhere else in the United States, and any efforts to make it part of our ordinance will more than likely be challenged (it is a precedent the industry cannot let go unchallenged). This regulation may also be an affront to the Right To Farm laws in Virginia, which stress that “overly restrictive” measures may not be imposed on agriculture. This Board has stated in the past that they would like to see limited poultry operations in Northampton County, however limited to 50 houses or less.
More than likely, the requirement for ammonia scrubbers will not hold up in Circuit Court and the ordinance will have to fall back on the 500 foot setbacks, which is what it appears the industry has been after all along. The question becomes, is 500 feet really enough? In other states, we find setbacks up to 1000 feet. A careful reading of this scenario, exposes a back door wide open for the poultry industry (Tyson has stated publicly that it prefers 500 foot setbacks).
Whether intentional or not, the public has not been fully vetted in regards to the actual state of play. Cynically, it isn’t too far a stretch to see how the groundwork to bring poultry to Northampton was done under the guise of trying to stop it. Ammonia scrubbers are a red herring, meant to shift attention from the true end game. The BoS can now claim that they did all they could to stop the industry, by inserting the ammonia scrubbers language into the ordinance, having to understand full and well it would be tossed by the courts. With the gate busted down, and the minimalist 500 foot setbacks winning the day, they can point to their efforts, and just blame the courts. In the end, the industry gets just what it wanted in the first place, the 500 foot setback.