Poultry house plan in Somerset faces local, national critics

AFP Correspondent

PRINCESS ANNE, Md. – A proposal to build chicken houses on Backbone Road in a largely agricultural area north of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore campus is under attack by some local residents and a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization. 
The proposal by Salisbury farmer Ben Nguyen would place chicken houses in an area zoned agricultural/residential.
Opponents of the project, some of whom live on Backbone Road, met with the Somerset County Planning Commission on Nov. 6.
The standing-room-only session also was attended by dozens of men and women wearing badges proclaiming “I support Maryland Poultry Farming.”
The commission heard from county residents as well as from a representative of Food & Water Watch, a national non-profit group that advocates for safe food and drinking water, academic researchers and from Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Coastal Trust. 
Phillips was one of the plaintiffs in the 2010 suit against Alan and Kristin Hudson alleging discharges in violation of the Clean Water Act. The Hudsons were exonerated in that case.
Speakers acknowledged the proposed poultry operation is a permitted use under the agricultural zoning of the land and the Maryland Right to Farm law. Their concerns focused on the alleged environmental and health impacts of poultry farming. 
Even though the right-to-farm law is a state law, several speakers asked the commission to study or amend the right-to-farm provisions.
Dr. Joe Inzerillo, a physician and resident of Backbone Road, claimed there are already 61 poultry houses within a three-mile radius of his home. He said he owns four lots in the area he would like to develop, but the density of the poultry operations makes the area less desirable for potential buyers.
He expressed concern with possible diseases from exposure to poultry litter. He said diseases such as MRSA “are a real problem I deal with every day in the emergency room.”
MRSA is an infection caused by staph bacteria. According to the Mayo Clinic website, “Most MRSA infections occur in people who've been in hospitals or other health care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers.” It says MRSA infection requires skin-to-skin contact and identifies at-risk populations to include “groups such as high school wrestlers, child care workers and people who live in crowded conditions.”
Inzerillo’s wife Lisa opposes the proposed construction for its potential impact on the couple’s undeveloped residential lots although, she said, “We are not affected where we live.”
She attacked Nguyen, the poultry producer who plans to erect the houses, as a “phantom farmer” who, she said, “doesn’t live on the farm; who doesn’t care about their (sic) neighbors.”
Michele Merkel, co-director, Food and Water Justice Project at Food and Water Watch, asked for a “review and update” of Right to Farm by the commission and the county health department. She asked the commission to consider issues of health, welfare and safety related to the planned poultry operation.
Two public health researchers from Johns Hopkins University presented findings relating to concentrated swine operations, including the potential for the spread of pathogens and ecological impacts of CAFOs. They argued the commission “needs more data to understand how facilities affect local areas.”
Commission members noted differences between swine and poultry waste. The disparity was emphasized by Dr. Jonathan Moyle, Extension poultry specialist, who said, “There is a huge difference between chickens and hogs. There is not really any crossover [of pathogens] between chickens and people. Epidemiological crossover between avians and people is very, very small.”
Rachel Childers, a long-time Backbone Road resident and day care provider, also disputed allegations that poultry houses have a negative impact on the surrounding area.
Since 2009, she said, she routinely takes her day care charges out of doors and “I have never had a kid leave because of chicken houses.”   Her comments were met with applause from some audience members.
The bigger problem, argued local farmer Dave Lowell, who said he has raised chickens for 23 years and currently has 11 poultry houses, is when farms adjacent to poultry operations are sold for residential development.
Maria Payan, a Pennsylvania resident who lives across the street from a poultry operation, alleged health impacts and urged the health department be involved in siting poultry houses. Commissioners responded by dismissing anecdotal out-of-state arguments.
Somerset County Farm Bureau President Eddie Johnson spoke briefly, but said he could not present a Farm Bureau position on the controversy until he consulted his board.
Kathy Phillips asked the commission to establish a stakeholder panel to gather information on the health impacts of the proposed poultry houses.  She asked the panel to recommend to the county commission that emissions from the poultry operation be monitored.
The commission was asked to take several actions and initiate various studies, but Somerset County Planning Director Gary Pusey said, “the commission can’t initiate any study on its own.”
The commission has issued requests for additional information.  Food & Water Watch has been asked to specify what it wants the county to do. The county Farm Bureau is being quizzed about Maryland poultry regulations. The county health department has been asked for information on health issues related to poultry houses.
Pusey says the county commission will be sent a summary of the comments and asked if they want any action by the planners.
He noted that a number of chicken house proposals are “in the pipeline,” but as “permitted uses,” they do not need to be approved by the planning commission. They do, however, need to be approved by the planning office which considers issues such as storm water management and setbacks. 
“Those issues are handled administratively by our department,” Pusey says.