Mostly About Chickens: Dade Commission Considers (Revised) Zoning Ordinance

January 10, 2020

 District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline (right) makes a point at the Dade County Commission's Jan. 7 zoning ordinance workshop. 


Democracy is hard.


That was the one clear takeaway from Tuesday's Dade County Commission work session on Dade's first stab at a zoning ordinance. The Jan. 7 meeting started at 5 p.m. and droned on until close to 7 p.m. without accomplishing much more than deepening the look of melancholy on the county attorney's face to one of frank misery.


Writing ordinances is hard. Especially about matters as contentious as zoning, and particularly when some parties insist on slipping in revisions between one session and another. 


The land-use ordinance draft dated 1/2/20 available at the 1/7/20 workshop seemed a little heftier than the one The Planet had obtained at the last regular county commission meeting (which in point of fact was actually on 1/2/20). But a little extra weight between one meeting and another is something that has happened to The Planet, too, one ordinance was printed double-sided and the other single, and it wasn't until District 2 Commissioner Phillip Hartline pointed it out that the addendum became evident.


"Everything that’s in this, does it come from the committee or is there some stuff that’s been added from outside the committee?" asked Hartline.


Hartline referred to an ad hoc committee of citizens who had been meeting weekly since October after the county commission had appointed them to hash out a zoning ordinance. 


Actually, agreed the commissioners upon shuffling pages, section 3, page 9, of today's version had been added between Thursday and Tuesday. Section 3, page 9, requires chicken houses to be set back 500 feet from a property's boundary as well as 500 feet away from any stream or creek. (It also stipulated that existing chicken houses would not be affected by the new rules.)


"Chicken houses are not industrial. That is a whole 'nother ball of wax that we need to address at a later date,” said Hartline. "You’re talking about a $28 million industry in Dade County that you’re attacking. “ 


Hartline--who, since he won his commission seat in 2018 over 16-year incumbent Scottie Pittman, has been the dissenting voice on a commission that otherwise does often seem to sing from the same page--told the others they were straddling the fence about zoning: They said they didn't want it, but: "Setback is zoning," he said. "Y'all can call it a mobile home or y'all can call it a trailer--it's just how you want to word it."


Hartline, the only commissioner who has not expressed the old guard's horror of the Z-word, told the others: “If we want zoning we need to spend two years and put a good zoning plan together.” Meanwhile, he said: "Let's leave the chicken houses out of this." 


He questioned the whole purpose of an ordinance that purported to regulate heavy industry in Dade. "This didn't start about heavy industry," he reminded. "This started about chickens."


(The present ordinance began life in response to pleas for help from Wildwood residents concerned last summer about a threatened incursion by a chicken processing plant. The county commission imposed a temporary moratorium on permitting new heavy industry pending the drafting of a permanent ordinance.)


Hartline also accused the other commissioners of subterfuge in the section-3-page-9 confusion. "I feel like y'all have made this decision on y’all’s own," said Hartline.


“What decision?" placated Dade County Executive Ted Rumley. "That’s what this workshop is for.”


And so they proceeded. If the whole thing started about chickens, there was a lot more about chickens to come. Hartline continued to object about the 500-foot chicken house setback. There was already a 150-foot setback in place, he said. "Do think that other 350 feet are going to make a difference?" He also argued that "noxious odor," another term from the ordinance, was subjective.  


Rumley contended that the 500 feet came from the University of Georgia Extension Service guidelines and that chicken houses really did smell pretty noxious. At the end of the meeting the UGA guidelines seemed to be what County Attorney Robin Rogers intended to use for the revised ordinance, which the public will get a chance to weigh in on at a Jan. 30 public hearing. 


But if the setback rules stayed the same, the definition of what is a chicken house and what isn't will change in the ordinance's next avatar, from facilities housing 50 chickens or more to facilities for 1000 or more, as per Rogers at the end of the meeting.


Distinctions like that--what is the difference between farming and animal processing? farming beef cattle and running a slaughterhouse? feeding one's cows and operating a commercial feedlot?--dominated the session. Jeremy Dyer (left), a member of the ad hoc committee appointed to put together the ordinance the commissioners were picking apart, was called upon to explain the committee's thinking on slaughterhouses.


The current ordinance states that its rules do not apply to "animal dressing facilities provided that the animals are killed off-site, or that are killed on site no more than one day a week." Dyer explained that the stipulation was meant to weed out big meat processing plants that really would make an impact on local resources, as opposed to deer processing plants or small farms that may slaughter a few head from time to time. No big operation would kill just once a week, he said. But big operations would probably be detected by other criteria, such as how much water they required, the commissioners finally decided, and they elected instead of the days-per-week rule to cap the number of animals killed per week at 30.


Also questioned were the deliveries-per-week rule. The committee had decided to exempt any operation that needed service by two or less box trucks or 28-foot tractor-trailers in any given week. Committee member Tom Tamburello explained that the rule had been meant to distinguish little companies that might get a Fed-Ex delivery now and then from big ones that had semis chugging noisily through the neighborhood night and day.


“At what point do you say to a company you’ve grown, you’re bigger now, you’re going to have to start following some of these guidelines?” he said.


Rumley suggested that attorney Rogers put in a “line or something to make that more clear," an instruction that did nothing to alleviate the gloom of that individual's facial expression.


Another part of the ordinance that drew fire was its stipulation that companies expanding 25 percent or more must seek a new permit.  “That’s just a law within a law,” said Hartline. The others agreed that a business adding some detrimental process along with its expansion would probably be detected in some other way than by the permit process, but it was unclear at the end of the meeting whether that would be taken out of the ordinance or not.


The commissioners did decide on some changes. The original ordinance draft had called for a $500 permit application fee. The committee had changed that to $100. "They were concerned that $500 would be a detriment to small business,” explained Rogers.


But since the commission had decided to take the committee's recommendation of creating a five-member special permit board, and since each member would have to be paid the standard $50-per-meeting stipend, and since the board would have to meet at least once for each application, the commission decided to raise the app fee to $250 to cover the county's minimum cost to process it.


The commission also opted to change the time limit for the holding of a public hearing on permit applications.  The committee had set the time at "within 90 days." District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff said: “Within 90 days is a long time. If you’re trying to get a business in, that’s a lifetime.” The others agreed, and the period was shortened to 45.   


What other changes will come in Dade's first zoning ordinance before the final vote to approve it? Or at least before the January 30--that's 6 p.m. folks, in the Administrative Building--public hearing on the final draft? 


The Planet will do its best to keep readers apprised, but is obliged to admit in closing: Especially with this business of unannounced revisions to controversial ordinances, keeping track of  the county commission is hard.

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