Planning Commission Begins Work To Ensure No More Mega-Project Surprises on Ag Land

By Lon Anderson
Moorefield Examiner

The Hardy County Planning Commission at its August meeting began a major effort to ensure that any agricultural “mega-projects” that are built in the County in the future will be subject to regulatory scrutiny so that impacts to residents and the environment are considered before construction begins.

This effort, of course, comes in response to the much-publicized 20-chicken house “mega-project” now under construction near Old Fields. Because Hardy County’s current agriculture zoning ordinance was designed to encourage all kinds of agricultural activity, the County couldn’t challenge the project, and had no cause to notify residents in nearby subdivisions about it.

The 20 large poultry houses are expected to hold about a million chickens and draw over 400,000 gallons of water daily from the local wells that will supply it. Many local residents attended the June Planning Commission meeting to express frustrations and concerns about issues including their air quality, their wells running dry and a decline in their property values.

For all of these reasons, the County Commission instructed Planning Commission President Lee Lehman to find a way that to ensure that the County did not face a similar situation in the future.[private]

Because the Planning Commission is currently without a County Planner to assist them, it sought permission to retain a consulting firm familiar with such rural zoning issues to assist them in responding to their mega-project issue. The County Commission agreed, and at its August meeting the Planning Commission had draft recommendations from its consultants on ways to better address future mega-projects.

The consultant’s recommendations came in the form of a draft ordinance, but the document offered many options, leaving it to the Commission to make specific decisions about what it wants in the ordinance. After giving the Commissioners a few minutes to review the draft, Lehman said “I need to know how we are going to do this—there’s a lot more here than we can decide now.”

“The proposal is pretty comprehensive,” noted Ben Martin, staff assistant in the Planning office. “It can be as restrictive or as lax as you want it.”

“Being more comprehensive is what we’re looking to do,” Lehman responded. “We’re not very comprehensive right now.”

“I guess we need to let people have time to fall back and look at what we want in each of these categories, which may mean having to have a special meeting or two. And we have (County Commission Member) Jay (Fansler) here, but we may want to have other members of the County Commission here as well.”

Would it be better to have a small group to work on this?” asked Planning Commissioner Charlotte Bowman. “That way, others could weigh in.”

“I agree that we don’t want to fall down a rabbit hole,” said Commission Vice President Greg Greenwalt.

“More eyes are better,” Bowman continued. “I think we need a core group to get the fundamentals done and there’s a lot of data that may need to be pulled together.”

“We don’t want to make this too restrictive,” Greenwalt noted. “Agriculture is a fundamental part of Hardy County.”

At this point some members of the poultry growing community who were in attendance spoke up. “I recommend your inviting the WV Poultry Association to participate, and perhaps the Farm Bureau since this will effect more than poultry,” suggested Darrell See of the WV Poultry Association.

“I just want to be open with the public,” said Michael Sullivan, representing Pilgrims, which will be getting the chickens raised in the “mega-project.” “There’s a lot of misconceptions out there.”

“This isn’t the first time the public has been snowballed,” responded Fansler.

“We’ll schedule a special meeting for this,” Lehman said.

“I absolutely agree that we should pull other people in,” Greenwalt said.

“Yes, I don’t want to single out poultry,” Lehman agreed.

“Cattle feeding for example,” Greenwalt said. “We might also want to invite BZA (Board of Zoning Appeals) members to participate.”

Lehman agreed. “They also have expertise in some of these things that we’ll be proposing.”

“Let’s plan this committee meeting to be in a couple of weeks,” Lehman said.

“Right—we’re not going to do it in one meeting,” Greenwalt said. “The more people who can help us answer our questions, the better.”

And so, the first meeting to begin work on an ordinance to regulate future “mega-projects” was set for August 18 at 6 p.m. at Brighton Park, and invitations were to also be extended to the Farm Bureau and the Ag Department (USDA) as well as other interested parties.

The Commission also dealt with a request to rezone a parcel that is .9 acres from residential to commercial off of state Route 220 near the Tri-County Equipment Rental business. Planning office administrative assistant Nicole Rohrbaugh told the Commissioners that the area was all zoned residential, and that the County’s RDA (Rural Development Administration) owned much of the surrounding land. “It looks like spot zoning to me,” Rohrbaugh advised.

“If we don’t want commercial in that area then we ought not give it them,” commented Commissioner George Leatherman.

“Let’s go ahead and tell him no,” said Lehman.

With that, Leatherman made a motion to leave the parcel zoned residential, which passed unanimously.

The Commissioners also addressed the issue of the County Planner position which has been vacant since April.

“We are still without a planner and I think it would be good to have one again,” the Commission President said, noting that the position was still budgeted.

“We can only make a recommendation – it’s at the discretion of the governing body (the County Commission),” said Greenwalt.

“Would you be in favor of making a recommendation that we hire a planner?” Lehman asked. A motion was made and passed, and Lehman asked staff to prepare a letter of request to the County Commission.

In other business, Rohrbaugh reported that the Planning Office in July had issued 22 building permits with an estimated $699,879 in construction value.[/private]