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Slaughterhouse text amendment supported by Worcester commissioners

Worcester County Commissions recently approved a text amendment that will allow slaughterhouses on A-1 agricultural properties by special exception after a public hearing during which several residents objected to the change.

Slaughterhouse pic

A slaughterhouse is set for development at a cattle farm on Croppers Island Road, which is pictured.
File photo

Bethany Hooper, Associate Editor

County officials last week approved a text amendment that will allow slaughterhouses on A-1 agricultural properties by special exception, but not before a public hearing in which several residents objected to the change.

The Worcester County Commissioners voted 6-0, with Commissioner Joe Mitrecic absent, to approve a text amendment that allows, by special exception, slaughterhouses in the A-1 agricultural district. The amendment sets certain square footage and setback requirements for such facilities, which will need approval from the county’s board of zoning appeals.

“We allow much more invasive uses in our A-1 than farming,” Commissioner Eric Fiori said ahead of last week’s vote, “and our A-1 districts are slowly moving away from farming because the profitability of not farming that is more and more attractive if we add more options to this.”

Attorney Mark Cropper told commissioners last Tuesday he was submitting the text amendment on behalf of his client, Bob Ewell, who raises cattle on a farm on Croppers Island Road. To sell the beef at his nearby butcher shop, Cropper said his client must transport his cattle to Western Maryland or nearby states for slaughter. He added the text amendment will allow Ewell to slaughter his livestock on his farm.

“This is enabling legislation,” he said. “All this would allow is Mr. Ewell to file an application with the board of zoning appeals and have a hearing in front of the board of zoning appeals, which would then determine on a case-by-case basis whether such a facility is appropriate on this property or any other property that some farmer may wish to utilize.”

As written, the text amendment would allow facilities for slaughtering livestock raised or maintained on the farm in the A-1 agricultural district by special exception, so long as those facilities do not exceed 600 square feet and the lots meet a 140-acre minimum. The amendment also includes a 400-foot-minimum setback requirement from any residential structure or public road.

“On April 4, 2024, the planning commission reviewed the text amendment,” Jennifer Keener, the county’s director of development review and permitting, told commissioners last week. “It made a favorable recommendation, with an amendment, to include additional provisions for the board of zoning appeals to require additional buffers, setbacks, to adequately protect the public from hazard based upon individual applications.”

Cropper said the facility his client wants to build would be 424 feet from the Island Resort Campground and 1,500 feet from Croppers Island Road. He said his client would only slaughter the cattle he’d raised and that the waste produced would be stored onsite and then hauled away by a company.

Several nearby residents, however, came before the commissioners last week to object to the text amendment. Their attorney, Demetrios Kaouris, said approving the text amendment would not only open an opportunity for slaughterhouse operations on Croppers Island Road, but on any A-1 land in Worcester County.

“First, there is no reason to provide the Ewells with any special privileges by amending the zoning code for their benefit,” he said.

Kaouris noted the current zoning codes of Worcester and other neighboring counties allowed slaughterhouses in the I-2 heavy industrial zone, where he argued they belonged. He also argued the text amendment would hurt nearby property owners.

“You have to understand that once you enact this special exception to the law, it’s presumptively permitted,” he said. “And that puts the burden now on the opponents of the special use application to establish why it’s not appropriate in this particular area.”

Kaouris added that the amendment also failed to define “livestock raised or maintained on the farm.”

“Nothing in the statute identifies what it means to be maintained or raised, and that essentially opens the door to allow commercial-style slaughterhouses in the A-1 zoning district,” he said. “Someone can say I want to maintain these here for a week, 10 days, whatever it might be. I don’t know because right now we don’t have any definition in the statute.”

When asked how the county defined ownership of livestock, Keener said it didn’t. She said those terms were simply referenced in other sections of the county code.

“It’s not outright defined,” she replied. “I couldn’t even find it under the state department of health definition where they talk about requiring on-farm processing for animals raised, fed or managed on the farm.”

Community members last week also raised concerns about water and wastewater, environmental impacts and traffic on Croppers Island Road. Assateague Coastkeeper Taylor Swanson argued that slaughterhouses were a source of nutrient pollution and were better placed in I-2 zoning districts as the code currently allows.

“This example we’re talking about today is very small scale,” he said of the Croppers Island Road project. “But it does warrant us earnestly debating the question of if this is opening the door to other facilities coming. Our region here has A-1 districts within every electoral zone within Worcester County. And so are we inviting other facilities to be opened within the county? I think that language needs to be appropriately looked into and we need to make a decision based on the idea that this could invite other facilities to come in.”

After a lengthy public hearing, the commission voted 6-0 to approve the text amendment as presented.

This story appears in the June 27, 2024, print edition of the Bayside Gazette.