LETTER: Chicken Houses Will Lower Property Values
April 27, 2015
EDITOR’S NOTE: Professor Art Schwarzschild submitted the following letter April 20 to the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, asking that it be made public record.
Dear Members of the Northampton County Board of Supervisors, Planning Commission, and County Staff,
I would like to start this letter with an apology for the tone of my last letter which questioned the motivations behind what I saw as the mysterious insertion of the new zoning use, “Event Venue,” into the revised draft zoning proposal. That being said, I believe it is important for you to understand that the back room procedure being used to write and repeatedly tweak the proposed zoning changes with little to no public involvement or explanation has led many Northampton County residents to question the motivations behind the proposed changes.
Once again, I would remind you of the comparison between the procedure used to create our current zoning code and this ongoing and confusing process. During the previous process the public was invited and encouraged to attend zoning work sessions in order to help craft a new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance. These public work sessions were run by the County Planning Director and Planning Staff with additional support from paid consultants.
Members of the PC and BOS were in attendance at each of these meetings to witness public input. Scientific data, Economic Reports and Case Studies were presented and used as guides to ask citizens what they wanted to see in Northampton County and to help provide a realistic road map for us to achieve these outcomes.
In stark contrast, I have seen no data, surveys, or case studies used to support the multitude of zoning changes being proposed. What’s even worse, these changes have often been presented in a confusing and misleading manner.
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Case in point: the table on page 5 of the so-called “Citizen Information Paper” published on the county website. This table appears to compare housing densities under the current zoning ordinance and the latest proposed zoning districts. During the recent public information sessions I questioned members of the staff about a line-to-line and column-to-column comparison of the figures presented in this table. Both Mr. Stith and Mr. McSwain said that was not how the table was meant to be read, but could not provide me with clear instructions on how to interpret the information presented in the table or even explain how the table was generated.
If the very staff that created a comparison table can not explain it, how can citizens be expected to properly interpret the information presented?
Worse yet, when multiple citizens submitted written comments complaining that the recent information sessions did NOT compare the current zoning ordinance to the proposed changes, but instead merely summarized the differences between the various drafts of the proposed changes, county staff responded that generating such a summary would be a difficult task and could take staff several weeks to complete.
Now, I ask you, if the very people writing the proposed zoning changes can not easily compare the changes they are proposing to the current zoning code, how can you expect the rest of us to do so?
As it turns out, however, there are a number of us who have undertaken this difficult and time consuming task. As one of these people, I can tell you that I am NOT happy with what I am finding. I am also distressed that when some of the issues we uncover are brought to your attention, our motivations are questioned or we are characterized as a misinformed group of people who do not want to see any changes in the county.
This is not the case. As you should very well know by now, we are not opposed to change, we jut want to make sure that the changes made are appropriate for the area and fit within the comprehensive plan.
I also want to make it clear that some of the changes you are proposing and that you suggest are relatively minor alterations to the zoning code may actually have significant impacts on the county. For example, reducing set-backs and the increasing allowances for the amount of impermeable surface permitted in the agricultural district may seem like a small thing, but these changes will open the door for the introduction of high density industrial poultry farming in Northampton County.
Is this what you really want to do? If not, and you do not believe that the changes you are proposing could have this effect please keep reading.
As some of you may recall, just a few years back Mr. Sam Long served on the BOS. At his urging, a working group was formed to investigate the potential for tweaking the zoning code to make it easier for chicken farms to operate in the county. I served as a scientific adviser to this working group.
Here’s a brief summary of some of the information I learned: At the time of the meetings, representatives from both Tyson and Purdue indicated their desire to expand operations into Northampton County with an initial goal of installing 50 chicken houses located between Exmore and Eastville. Both companies indicated that they require a grower to have a minimum of 4 chicken houses in order to ensure sufficient production to support a farm. Each of these houses would be a minimum of 30,000 square feet.
So, at a minimum of 4 houses/farm, 50 chicken houses would equate to a maximum of 12 family farms. Our current zoning code requires a minimum of 20 acres along with the ability to meet all set-back requirements from water bodies and neighboring houses/properties for such a farm. Representatives from Tyson and Purdue found this unreasonable, and suggested that a farm with 4 (or more) chicken houses could be sited on a property of only 12 acres.
When I heard this, I asked Mrs. Benson (the Planning Director at that time) how much impervious surface was permitted in the Ag. district. She responded that the code allowed for a maximum of 15% impervious surface on Ag. properties in order to protect our groundwater resources. We then calculated how much land would be needed to maintain this maximum coverage limit with four 30,000 square-foot poultry houses and the associated compost building, loading pad, and other structures required by Tyson and Purdue in order to operate a poultry farm. Turns out the answer is 20 acres.
What this means is that by eliminating the limitations on the amount of impervious surface permitted in the Ag. District and reducing required set-back, your proposed zoning changes are giving Tyson and Purdue exactly what they say they need in order to bring high density, industrial poultry farming into Northampton County, opening the door for a minimum of 50 chicken houses to be located between Exmore and Eastville.
Again, I remind you that 50 chicken houses equates to a maximum of 12 family farms. According to Tyson and Purdue, these farms would only employ the owner/operator and not generate any additional full-time jobs. Expected net income for such a farm would be, at most, $80,000 after expenses, assuming no issues with disease, and chickens growing at optimal rates.
Consider what would happen to property values and therefore real estate tax revenues for residential houses located near these poultry farms. Would the taxes generated from the farms outweigh those lost due to reduced property values?
Now compare the potential revenue from the 12 farms to that generated by our current Aquaculture industry with clam and oyster hatcheries. How many full-time jobs are created by hatcheries like Cherrystone Aqua-Farms, Terry Brothers, etc.? Would you put this entire industry at risk in order to add 12 poultry farms to the county revenue stream?
Some might say there is no real risk involved, and we should expect the poultry farmers to follow all the required rules and regulations. First, I ask, who will inspect and enforce these regulations? Do we have anyone on the county staff with the time needed to make these inspections? If not, where do the funds come to hire such a staff member?
Next, let’s think about the very real issue of hurricanes and what even one storm could do. I lived in North Carolina when Hurricane Fran hit the coast near Beaufort and moved inland, causing wide-scale flooding around Kinston, over a 45-minute drive from the coast. Hog farms in the Kinston area were flooded, and even those that had met or exceeded all regulations discharged hog waste and drowned animals into nearby water bodies. Water quality in the Neuse River was massively altered. Algal blooms, including the outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida (a fish killing bloom that also impacted human health) occurred, causing massive fish kills and closing all major fisheries for a period of months. Shellfish harvesting was banned and the fisheries in the Neuse River and Pamlico Sound have yet to fully recover from this incident which took place over 15 years ago.
Hurricane Fran was not an unusually large storm for this area — and remember, Kinston is located over 40 miles from the coast. Consider what a similar storm could do here in Northampton County, which is less than 10 miles wide.
For these reasons, I again ask you to carefully consider the multitude of zoning changes you are proposing. Please make sure you are fully aware of all of the potential impacts these changes may have on our county before you vote them into place. Yes, the county needs more revenue, but let’s make sure we do not act in a penny-wise and pound-foolish manner. Let’s ensure that our zoning continues to build on our strengths like traditional agriculture, aquaculture, and tourism, while reducing our risks to costly damage from storms and coastal flooding. Thank you and best wishes.