(Delmarvanow.com) -- The Painter town council on Monday approved stricter zoning regulations than Accomack County currently has for commercial poultry farms.
The town of around 200 people is one of 14 incorporated towns in Accomack County.
"How can we get there, where we want to go? We don't want any facility," said Barbara Phillips, a Painter Planning Commission member.
Phillips cast the lone dissenting vote when the three planning commission members in attendance recommended the town council adopt a 600-foot setback requirement and a minimum parcel size of 60 acres for any future poultry, swine or livestock raising facilities in town.
Another commissioner said the 600-foot setback would be at least a "stop-gap" measure.
"Right now, this is better than nothing," said Michael Drummond.
He and Tom Willett voted to recommend the amendments, while Phillips said she would like to see even stricter requirements adopted.
With the removal of a previous special use permit requirement in Painter's zoning ordinance — because it was in violation of state law — until the council voted Monday, a landowner could have filed an application to construct a poultry raising facility, and paid the fee, and the use would have been allowed by-right with no further restrictions, according to town attorney John Hopkins.
Additionally, "The chances of someone making an application under your existing zoning ordinance, which has no restrictions on these facilities, is probably enhanced, I suspect, after we've gone to this public hearing and explained that you have no restrictions," he said during officials' discussion.
Still, the ordinance, in order to withstand legal challenges, must allow for at least the theoretical possibility of a poultry facility being built on agricultural land in town.
The 600-foot setback allows for that, but a greater setback — such as the 1,000-foot setback some speakers proposed — "would make it impossible to construct such a facility, no matter how small," in town, Hopkins wrote in a handout given to officials and attendees.
That could set the stage for a legal challenge.
"You can't have the A-1 (agricultural) district while making it impossible to use it for this type of facility anywhere in town by excessive setback requirements," he wrote, explaining the effect of the state's right-to-farm law.
Still, a locality may enact setback requirements, minimum area requirements and the like, the law says.
An alternative to the setbacks and minimum parcel size requirement would be to abolish the town's agricultural district altogether — but existing agricultural land would be grandfathered as long as it remains in use, Hopkins said.
The council's unanimous vote to adopt the zoning amendments came as two dozen attendees — the majority from out of town — looked on, and after 10 people spoke at a public hearing.
Those in the room included a film crew making a documentary and representatives of Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
All speakers were in favor of stricter zoning for poultry operations, with some, like Ken Dufty of Exmore, urging officials to consider a 1,000-foot setback.
"When you love something ... you fight for it," Dufty said, talking about Northampton County residents' fight a few years ago to overturn zoning regulations they thought harmful.
He called the buildout of chicken houses in Accomack County "an assault like we've never seen."
"This affects everyone, across the board ... We're in the same aquifer," he said of the two neighboring counties' residents.
Jay Ford, Eastern Shorekeeper, called the zoning amendments "a very smart planning proposal."
He noted the 600-foot setback is what Eastern Shore Health District Director Dr. David Matson recommended to Accomack County officials.
"You have such a treasure here. The Eastern Shore is a treasure and it needs to be protected," said Maria Payan of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project.
"I think that our groundwater is really in jeopardy ... I hope it will make the rest of Accomack kind of wake up, because we're kind of like on the brink of a catastrophe," said Anne Winston Pinder Batchelder of Pungoteague.
The ordinance applies only to agricultural land within the town limits.
The town zoning ordinance, enacted in 1994, formerly had required a special use permit for specialized animal raising, but that is not in compliance with Virginia law that became effective in 1995, town attorney Hopkins told the planning commission and town council at the joint public hearing.
The changes the council ultimately approved, unanimously, on Monday brought the ordinance into compliance with state law by removing the special use permit requirement.
The amendments also added a new requirement that poultry or other livestock raising facilities in town must be located on a single parcel of 60 acres or more, with a maximum density of one facility per 60 acres.
Additionally, the amendments added a required 600-foot setback from boundary lines; residences; non-agricultural businesses, churches, schools, museums, or other nonprofit businesses; any public road or railroad right-of-way; the town's corporate limits; any body of water; and any other animal raising facility.
The largest agricultural parcel in town at present is about 42 acres, but some who spoke at the hearing were concerned about contiguous parcels being consolidated, which could result in a parcel that would meet the town's minimum size.
Whether to allow consolidation of adjacent parcels is up to the town council, Hopkins said.
"If the town council does not approve a lot consolidation, then the applicant can't get to 60 acres, anyway," he said.