Sussex County considering makeover of poultry house zoning regulations

GEORGETOWN – Sussex County – the self-proclaimed chicken capital of America – has hatched initial discussion on a possible makeover of poultry house zoning regulations that could significantly alter setbacks and buffers.

County council at its Aug. 22 meeting received a presentation from Janelle Cornwell, county planning and zoning director on recommendations from Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. DPI is the 1,800-member, non-profit trade association for Delmarva’s broiler industry.

“We did meet with local stakeholders and Delmarva Poultry Industry to get their feedback and concerns about the poultry industry,” said Ms. Cornwell.

Meetings between county staff and local poultry stakeholders and DPI followed recent public comment levied before council on poultry houses. Specific concerns focused on large corporate-type poultry house complexes podium speakers said were being considered on property along SR 404 between Georgetown and Bridgeville.

DPI’s recommendations are for new poultry houses/accessory buildings to:

  • have a minimum 400-foot setback from a dwelling on adjacent property;
  • be at least 200 feet from the centerline of a public road with a minimum 25-foot-wide vegetative environmental buffer;
  • have a minimum setback of 100 feet from property lines with a 50-foot-wide buffer or a 25-foot buffer with increased plant density.

Tunnel ventilation, currently not specifically addressed in zoning, should be located at ends of poultry houses to minimize effects upon neighbors; vegetative buffers encouraged, according to DPI’s recommendations.

Current county regulations for poultry houses are that they must be at least 200 feet from a dwelling of other ownership, 50 feet from all boundary lines and 200 feet from any certain zoning district boundary.

“If the ordinance does go into effect, it would affect anything new,” said Ms. Cornwell. “Everything that is existing would then become legal non-conforming.”

Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson said the county reached out to DPI and DPI Executive Director Bill Satterfield. “He recommended that we make initial outreach to the industry,” said Mr. Lawson.

Representatives from Mountaire, Allen Harim and Perdue were invited. Representatives from the poultry industry were the actual housing managers, the ones that oversee their company’s housing operations, Mr. Lawson said.

“They were corporate individuals from those companies. Were there any actual farmers, poultry growers there?” asked county councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford.

“There were not,” said Ms. Cornwell.

“Is there a reason why they were not there? This is going to directly impact them,” Mr. Arlett asked.

Ms. Cornwell said initial “intent was to discuss with companies to get their feedback and then do further outreach as we move forward … if the process wants to go forward.”

“When we met with the stakeholders they thought they were amenable to those changes, because they are trying to be good neighbors and do Best Management Practices …,” Ms. Cornwell said.

DPI’s new proposed regulations are geared to create consistency among Delmarva’s counties.

Ms. Cornwell concurred the proposed regulations “are on par with other counties in the region.”

“Existing setbacks for existing poultry houses will be extended to new poultry houses on existing poultry farms to allow consistency on the property and to avoid economic hardship for growers wishing to expand their operations,” according to DPI’s Best Management Practices and Good Neighbor Relations approved by DPI’s board of directors in June of 2015.

“We’re all trying to protect our agricultural base and our strong poultry industry. We don’t want to do anything to really hurt them,” said councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View.

Mr. Cole recommended that future discussion should include input from farmers and rural people who live in the country, residents in the AR-1 district, which is a residential district.

“Unfortunately, in Sussex county since we don’t have an Ag District, your AR-1 district is a residential district. So, the rights of the farmer are not paramount; they don’t take precedent over the rights of an AR-1 person to develop their land and live,” said Mr. Cole. “In my opinion AR-1 equally is balanced between the farmer’s rights and the residential rights. We have to be very concerned as we see this population expand in Sussex county, which has doubled since I have been here.”

Mr. Cole questioned the current classification of “Farm” as a five-acre parcel or greater.

“Chicken houses when I grew up were a certain size,” said councilman Irwin G. Burton, R-Lewes. “And now they are getting five times that. So, does anybody talk about different setbacks for the different sizes. What I am seeing is the industry is really changing. I just wonder: are these setbacks addressing the differences in the business climate that is changing?”

“The new setbacks would address some of the newer chicken houses that are being built that are larger,” said Ms. Cornwell.  “The setbacks would be for any size chicken house.”

Mr. Lawson said poultry industry representatives indicated the average poultry house is 60 by 600 feet, or 36,000 square feet.

“Since the industry weighed in for development of the Best Management Practices that are endorsed by DPI, I would say when they did that they did look into the common size of poultry houses to make sure that this could work for them,” said Mr. Lawson.

Further discussion is planned. Once a draft is in hand the public hearing process will begin.

“Yes, the chicken houses are evolving. They are getting bigger and larger, perhaps one can say they are becoming more industrious,” said Mr. Arlett.  “I have to remind: we are the No. 1 chicken capital of the country. We do not want to do anything other than to continue those efforts and to highlight our successes here. As we move forward I want to be better than surrounding counties. We want to attract more not necessarily less. I think we just have to be cautious and careful as we move forward and get the input from all stakeholders including those farmers that have the most to lose.”

“Amen,” said councilman Samuel Wilson Jr., R-Georgetown, the lone agricultural member on county council.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at

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