A controversial public hearing stirred up emotions at the Gordon County Board of Commissioners meeting earlier this week, creating divisions between county citizens regarding an approved rezoning request to expand a chicken farm.
John and Brandon Ross applied to request a rezoning back in November for 90.34 acres on Blalock Road — from A-1 to conditional use in order to build six chicken houses and expand their chicken farm.
Commissioners hosted a public hearing in November for both those in opposition and in favor of the rezoning. Though the board had one motion to approve the Ross’s application, the motion failed for lack of a second. One commissioner was not present at the Nov. 20 meeting, and three did not choose to either approve or deny the request.
On Tuesday, following the second public hearing, the board reconsidered the request and it was passed by a 3-2 vote. A motion was made to approve the request by Commissioner Kevin Cunningham, and Chad Steward seconded the motion. Cunningham, Steward and Board Chairwoman Becky Hood approved the request, while Bud Owens and Norris Sexton were not in favor of the approval.
The approval of the request carries the conditions that the Ross’ would build no more than six chicken houses, no more than two residential houses (one for Brandon Ross, and eventually one for Brandon’s sister) and would abide by their application’s intent regarding property buffers required by the Union Land Development Corporation Standards ordinance for large commercial chicken farms.
During the first public hearing in November, Terry Brumlow, the counsel for the applicant’s, said the construction would require minimal deforestation. The houses would not be mega houses, though they would be larger than the standard size, and they would be at least 200 feet from the property line, Brumlow continued.
Also at that first hearing, Marvin Blalock, who has lived near the property in question since 1944, said if the rezoning was approved, his honey bee business would be destroyed.
“I can’t afford to lose thirty to forty hives of honey bees, it would put me out of business,” said Blalock in November, who explained that ammonia from the chicken farm would disorient his bees and kill their colonies.
Microbiologist and chemist Charlene Hendrix said scientific research proves that chicken farms cause long-term health effects for humans, including asthma, upper respiratory diseases and potentially cancer. Hendrix also said destroying Blalock’s bee farm would decrease pollination of local fruit trees, plants and produce, which would significantly alter Gordon County ecosystems.
Others who spoke against the rezoning during the November meeting included Blalock’s daughter, Hendrix’s mother and other residents near the Blalock Road property.
After the motion failed to be seconded, County Administrator Jim Ledbetter advised John and Brandon Ross they could appeal the board’s decision and take their request to superior court. Yet, since the board hadn’t made a concrete decision, Brumlow predicted the superior court would send them back to commissioners for an official approval or rejection.
After a few months of communication with Ledbetter, Brumlow officially requested that the board either officially approve or reject the Ross’ request so that they could take their request to superior court, leading to Tuesday’s public hearing.
The same neighbors who protested the chicken farm expansion at the first hearing were joined by new faces. Those who spoke against the rezoning this time around included Blalock, Hendrix, concerned neighbor James Youngblood and other residents in the nearby area.
“Please don’t let this happen to us because of greed, it all amounts to greed,” said Steve Bradshaw, a resident of Blalock Road who said this rezoning would tear apart their already existing peaceful community. “It’s not the right thing to do.”
Adam Longino, who invested in property on Blalock Road 15 years ago, said it was important his land doesn’t lose property value, which he said would be inevitable if this rezoning is approved.
And while most present were in opposition, there were a few neighbors who were in favor of the rezoning, including Roger Mathis and Andrew Cole.
“We live in a farming community,” said Cole. “It would be a shame for the land to be used to build something else. I’d much rather it be a farm.”
Mathis, who lives within 500 feet of the Ross’ property, realized that the expectation for the land to remain undeveloped is unrealistic, and said the Ross’s plan for a chicken farm would be an appropriate use of the land.
Brumlow defended his clients in response to those who opposed the request, at which point, some people started directly asking Brumlow questions. As the two different sides of the conflict began to heatedly argue in between the hearing and the final decision, Ledbetter tried to bring calm to the situation, explaining how the hearing wasn’t supposed to be an open Q&A session or a public argument.
John Ross spoke to the board and said he went above and beyond in his application, abiding by the requirements set in the ULDC ordinance for large commercial chicken farms.
The ULDC ordinance, which Ledbetter reminded the board of, lists out the requirements for commercial poultry operations. Ledbetter highlighted that the ordinance set geographical boundaries for the buildings; restrictions on water, septic systems and utility lines; and requirements for dead poultry disposal.
Ledbetter also read that the ordinance required the board to consider the character of the neighborhood and surrounding community before making a decision, including the currently existing levels of traffic, road conditions, odor or noise, and proximity of existing residencies.
When the public hearing was closed, Commissioner Chad Steward asked Ledbetter if the board could approve the rezoning request but place conditions on it, to which the county administrator replied “yes.”
After the motion passed 3-2, neighbors who lived in the Blalock Road area were clearly upset with the results, but the Ross family and their supporters were satisfied with the board’s new decision.
“Our land value is going to be hurt,” said a frustrated citizen who preferred to remain anonymous. “It’s a dangerous area for cars, let alone the trucks they’ll bring in.”
“There were 32 people in there against it and three for it,” said James Youngblood, who lives near Blalock Road. “They said it won’t smell, but on a hot day when the wind’s blowing right, it’s going to knock your hat off.”
Youngblood said the estimated 32 people in opposition were also representing their families at home, who would also be disappointed with the board’s decision.
“There are at least 60 people who are very upset about what’s going to happen,” said Youngblood.