The Sussex County Council is looking to “clarify” farm use and agricultural activity in its code, following a long discussion on June 24.
Assistant County Attorney Vince Robertson presented information on the issue to council at the meeting and noted that the county code does not have definition for the term “farm.” However, the code does have definitions for agricultural-related industry, commercial feed lot and structure; commercial poultry house, private feed lot and structure.
Robertson noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “farm” as “any place from which $10,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.”
He also presented definitions from the states of New Jersey and Maryland, as well as Delaware's other two counties.
Kent County code defines “farm” as “a parcel of land not less than 10 acres in size primarily used for agricultural purposes, including farming, dairying, pasturing, agriculture, horticulture, viticulture, animal and poultry husbandry and the necessary accessory uses for packing, treating or storing the produce; provided, however, that the operation of any such accessory uses shall be secondary to that of normal agricultural activities. Above uses shall not include raising of animals for use in medial or other tests or experiments on the same property.”
New Castle code defines “farm” as “the land, buildings, structures and machinery which are primarily adapted and used for agricultural purposes.”
“It seems to me already that we should look at this and tighten it up. It's just so simple if we could just condense all this stuff and come up with something that could be enforceable that are zoning regulations for activities. It's all over the place,” said Councilman George Cole following the presentation.
“It's confusing to the citizens of Sussex County and to the farmers, I think, in some sense as well,” agreed Robertson. “It's not well-organized. There's parts of it all over the AR-1; some are permitted uses, some are permitted uses on any acreage, some are permitted usage on 5 acres. Some require a conditional use, certain things require special-use exceptions, and there's no definition of farm.”
Cole said he was concerned about not only present-day conflicts with residential and agricultural uses of AR-1 properties, but also conflicts that may occur in the future.
“There's no clear definitions of what you can do on these things,” he said. “I think as we go through this land-use thing, we're revising things. If we don't have some clear definitions as we work on this land-use thing, we've left a big hole in what zoning is here in the county… I think we need to determine… There's field crops and there's the animals — pigs, chickens, et cetera, et cetera.”
Cole also noted that enforcement of the code could be an issue, especially related to farm animals.
“Who's going to count pigs? Who's going to count ducks? Who's going to count this stuff? Nobody is. I think it's time to start looking at this thing and come up with something logical.”
Robertson said the council perhaps should not look at how they would define “farm” but rather look at how people can use their properties in specific zoning districts.
“I think everyone here know a farm when they see it but may have a slightly different specific definition of what a farm actually is. I think we could get caught up on that too much.”
Council President Michael Vincent said he was fine with putting the topic on the list of items the council is working to address.
Cole asked if it would be possible to have someone from the Planning & Zoning office to be assigned to review the code as it relates to farming in AR-1.
“The Planning & Zoning office overall is extremely busy right now with the work they're doing with the applications that are coming through. If we were to assign a staff member, that would probably mean that that member is not doing what they're doing today,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.
Lawson also said he and staff would need more direction from the council before they could move forward.
“I'm hearing we're all over the place and we need to streamline, and there are some things here that don't seem like they make sense… But I'm not really hearing some direction as to what the council wants us to analyze,” he said.
“Some of our items on our list — this infamous list — are pretty straightforward. We want to tackle 10 feet and bring it down to 5. That's just a straightforward code change that we all, as staff, understand what council wants.
“I don't understand what you want related to what we're talking about today, nor do I know of what the actual problem has been identified,” Lawson explained. “If we know what the problem is, I can tackle that.”
Cole said he is trying to make the County proactive, foreseeing conflicts in the code.
“It's just going to get worst,” he said, suggesting Sussex could look to Kent County for how they address farming.
County Attorney J. Everett Moore said some of Cole's concerns could be dealt with through changes in setbacks, to keep structures such as poultry houses farther away from adjacent property owners.
“Anyone who buys into AR-1 neighborhood has placed on their deed or restriction that's required by the State that they understand they are buying in an area that has farming, and they could be subjected to dust, odors, noises that are related to agriculture,” he added.
Cole also noted that in Sussex County, the smallest parcel one could erect a poultry house on is 5 acres. He suggested the County move to a 10-acre minimum.
“There's nothing that says agriculture is more important than residential in the AR-1 district, right? They're equal, so we have to treat them like that. We have to protect both concerns.”
“I agree with Mr. Cole, and I believe taking a proactive role will both help the farmer, the residents — everybody. I think we should do that,” said Councilman I.G. Burton.
“It sounds to me like you want to do away with agriculture and take care of the people moving in,” said Councilman Sam Wilson, expressing opposition.
Councilman Rob Arlett said that, while he was not opposed to the discussion, he would like it to be more inclusive.
“We've not heard from the farmers. To me, I think we do need to provide clarity… if there's confusion that exists,” he said. “To me, I wouldn't be agreeable to doing anything without the input of the farmers because, ultimately, this is going to impact them.”
Vincent requested that staff come up with ideas and suggestions for what they believe would offer clarity.
“Then, after that conversation, we could invite in people from the farming community to give their input.”
By Maria Counts