On Maryland’s Delmarva Peninsula, an emerging trend of anti-CAFO zoning laws

Poultry CAFO

Poultry CAFO

Commissioners in Worcester County, Maryland, on Tuesday unanimously voted to make things tougher on one of its largest employers: the local chicken industry. By passing County Bill 17-3, which creates a separate, more stringent zoning classification for large poultry farms, the county sent the message that even if it likes the money the farms bring to the area, it’s fed up with the way they pollute.

A standard chicken house has over 40,000 square feet of floor space and will hold tens of thousands of birds. The new law stipulates that only eight of those chicken houses can be built on any parcel of land. In addition, large operations—defined as farms with more than five houses on one property—must set all structures at least 200 feet back from all property lines, and build a three-rowed buffer of trees and vegetation along the boundary.

Until now, Worcester residents unhappy about the factory farms next door didn’t have much recourse. In order to start a new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), the state’s Department of the Environment requires operators only to submit a plan that includes the number of animals, and a plan for addressing soil erosion, water quality, and disposal of waste. There’s no limit per se on how close CAFOs can be to a residence, or how badly they can smell. The courts aren’t much help, since the state’s right-to-farm rule makes it hard for locals to bring nuisance suits. But county zoning has turned out to be an effective tool.

Worcester is following the lead of two neighboring counties on the Delmarva Peninsula, the easternmost part of Maryland, which juts like a talon into the Atlantic. In August, Somerset County passed a similar law, and was followed closely by Wicomico County. The Delmarva region, which also includes much of Delaware, is one of the country’s most prolific producers of meat chickens. In 2014, farms there produced 596 million broilers, or chickens raised for meat—almost 7 percent of the country’s total production on just a tiny fraction of its land mass.

The new rule won’t change much for existing operations with more than eight barns. They’ll have to build the buffers, and they won’t be able to add any new facilities without subdividing property, but their existing operations will otherwise be grandfathered in. Still, it may be enough to slow the growth of CAFOs in the state.

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Joe Fassler is The Counter's deputy editor. His reporting has been included in The Best American Food Writing and twice nominated for a James Beard Media Award. A 2019 - 2020 Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he's the author of two books: a novel, The Sky Was Ours (forthcoming from Penguin Books), and Light the Dark: Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.