Photo above: Thomas Kerchner and his retirement dream House by Dave Harp for the Bay Journal
By Rona Kobell
When Thomas Kerchner married his wife, Sherri, he promised to build her dream home for their retirement years. She had always wanted a log home, so they purchased a lot on a back-country road in Princess Anne, Md., and he designed a home perfect for hosting grandchildren and enjoying country breezes.
Now, the Kerchners are selling that home. Poultry mega-houses have sprouted in their area where trees used to sway, bringing with them tons of manure, industrial-level traffic and the stench of ammonia.
Neighbors point to more than 50 chicken houses within a 3-mile radius of the Backbone Road corridor, off Peggy Neck Road and close to the Manokin River, one of the state’s most polluted. At least 67 more chicken houses are permitted and in various stages of construction in Somerset County.
The houses are on parcels with no cropland. Each is about 66 feet wide by 600 feet long, a style that Mountaire, one of the nation’s largest poultry companies, calls the “Big House” concept. They are both larger than the traditional chicken houses and packed with more birds. Mountaire grows chickens on the Shore, though some of the new houses are for Tyson growers.
Neighbors push back
The Kerchners and their neighbors are pushing back, trying to persuade Somerset County to take into account the health and quality of life for residents when considering these operations.
In Somerset, as in many other counties, the poultry houses are permitted in residential/agricultural zones. In contrast to an industrial operation like a rendering plant, these poultry houses can sit next to homes. And unlike a farm with grain and corn crops, they can sit on just a few acres.
“I dare any of the people on the county commission — or anyone just about — to tell me that they would want their grandchildren to grow up 300 or 400 feet from one of those complexes. I don’t believe that it’s true,” Kerchner said. “And I’m sick to death of them saying that these are family farms. They are farms like a steel mill is a blacksmith shop. There’s no comparison.”
Changing poultry industry
The poultry industry is changing rapidly — not just on the Delmarva Peninsula, which was home to 565 million birds in 2013.
In Arkansas, chicken companies are talking about building double-decker chicken houses, which can accommodate twice as many birds as the houses currently do.
Most houses on Delmarva house at least 20,000 birds in a flock. With the birds staying for their six-week growing period, that can be close to 200,000 chickens cycling through a house in a single year.
The zoning codes on the Eastern Shore were designed for the old model of chicken farmer — a farmer with several hundred acres, a couple of chicken houses and no immediate neighbors. With the new houses, the person tending to the chickens doesn’t necessarily live there. In the case of Kerchner’s neighborhood, the developer is Ben Nguyen, who has built the houses, but contracted the bird-raising and farm management to others.
Somerset County requires at least 10 acres for a poultry farm. That size property would be allowed to hold two of the mega-houses; six houses would fit on 25 acres.
“This is definitely what we’re seeing in the industry. The more houses you buy, the cheaper it is,” said Lee Richardson, a grain farmer who owns four chicken houses in Wicomico County. “The more houses you put on the area, the more you can justify the cost. Now, there are incentives for building chicken houses. The assumption is that those incentives won’t be there forever.”
Larger houses, smaller lots
A demand for cheap chicken is pushing the poultry companies on the Eastern Shore to move to larger houses on smaller lots. One chicken farmer described a scenario where, if he built six houses, the company would build a seventh for free. The mega-houses in Princess Anne are also coming to Accomac County in Virginia and Sussex County in Delaware.
The industry contracted, with several companies going out of business in 2010, but it appears to have bounced back.
In Maryland, 35 percent of the cash income from farms came from meat chickens in 2013. The state ranked eighth nationwide for production, with 1,617,600 pounds, according to the Delmarva Poultry Industry.
Maryland environmental requirements are in part driving the trend. The Maryland Department of the Environment does not monitor air quality coming out of the chicken houses, but it does require stormwater management. Building a sediment pond might cost $60,000, and require an engineer to design it. A farmer is going to want to build one pond large enough to service several houses.
There is also the matter of what to do with the manure generated by the big houses. Soils in Somerset County are saturated with phosphorus, and poultry manure contains the mineral, meaning in most cases it can’t be spread on nearby fields.
The newly approved phosphorus management tool that guides manure application will prohibit that. That means the manure must be stored until another, environmentally safe, use can be found. The state requires permitted manure storage facilities for these houses, but storage can leave manure vulnerable to washing into streams if improperly covered.
Richardson doesn’t see the larger-scale houses as a negative. Nguyen, for example, planted more trees and set some of the houses farther back from the road than the law required. In one case, he would have needed a variance to build in wetlands, and decided not to build, according to neighbors.
“With these bigger farms, there does come new responsibilities,” Richardson said. “They’re burning their own bridges in the long run if things aren’t done right.”
Nguyen did not return calls from the Bay Journal.
Neighbors familiar with older chicken houses
Many of the neighbors who oppose the chicken houses are not new to the Shore. They’re familiar with the old model of chicken farming, and bought their properties assuming some poultry farmers would be their neighbors.
“I grew up in Pocomoke, around chicken houses. These are not those chicken houses. The density is not the same,” said Linda Cultone, who moved to Princess Anne with her husband, Charlie, from Wallops Island.
At first, the Cultones said, they saw one chicken house. Then, plans called for them to be “surrounded,” Charlie Cultone said.
On Palmetto Church Road, just a few blocks from the Cultone’s home, dozens of chicken houses surround five single-family homes. Linda says when she walks her dog at night, she can see the dust from the chicken fans. On a winter day, the ammonia in the air was pungent. No one had their windows open, and no one was outside. About a mile away from the road is a daycare center. It sits near a ditch which drains from the new operations.
Residents lobby to update zoning
Residents lobbied Somerset County to update the zoning code and create bigger setbacks from the road. Currently, the county requires a 200-foot setback, a distance required by several other Shore counties. Caroline requires 600 feet. Somerset County planning director Gary Pusey said his department has recommended changes to the planning commission and would like the matter to come before a public hearing. The recommended changes concern larger setbacks, buffers and density. They do not address health.
In two letters, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future outlined potential health concerns for nearby residents and growers, including increased pathogens in the water and air as well as asthma and other breathing problems because of the ammonia from the chicken houses. The scientists added that the cluster of so many chickens in one place leads to increased outbreaks of avian flu, which they noted is becoming a nationwide problem as large-scale confined animal operations proliferate.
The new county regulations ask the county’s health department to forward concerns to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Somerset is not taking the step that Linn County, MO, took when it created a health ordinance. The ordinance sets out health criteria and gives the county the authority to prosecute companies who violate it.
Richardson, the chicken farmer, said health concerns are overblown — many chicken farmers he knows live into their 80s and 90s.
But to the residents of Princess Anne, the unknown risks outweigh their piece of mind. At one time, they say, steel workers broke down asbestos and didn’t know that it caused cancer. Construction workers coated homes in lead paint, even though doctors now know it causes developmental delays in children. And Kerchner himself sprayed wood preservatives laden with toxic metals on homes in Ocean Pines. That would be illegal now, he said, and rightly so.
Some neighbors have said they may follow Kerchner up the road to pastures that still grow food and not chicken houses.
The decision to leave his piece of paradise is bittersweet. Kerchner, a hospital custodian, promises one thing, though: Wherever they go, it won’t be next to a large-scale animal operation. He’ll make sure of that, he said.
“I have told my wife, more than once, I don’t want to leave here, but at the moment, it’s the thing that makes sense,” he said. “I wish it didn’t.”