Local ordinance makes farm expansion difficult

CM-MR-1-Local 1by Sally Colby

Beau Ramsburg and his wife Cat have been farming for about seven years in rural Adams County, PA, raising broilers and heritage breed pork. They own a small farm property, rent an additional 40 acres, and in June of 2013, they purchased a 38-acre farm.

“We want to expand our farm operation,” said Ramsburg. “It had an existing building that at one time was a store, and lends itself well as a building and a location to sell our farm products.”

On the new property, Ramsburg plans to raise chickens on pasture, confined with electric fence netting and with livestock guardian dogs for predator control. Shelter would be in the form of 10 x 12 ft. portable hoop houses. Ramsburg already has a great customer base, and has expanded his current operation every year. He plans to raise no more than 20,000 birds in one year, and likely far fewer than that number.

The Ramsburgs told the township zoning officer that their intended use for the property, which is zoned rural residential, was to raise chickens, slaughter and market them in the on-farm store. “The zoning board came back and said we couldn’t slaughter, because slaughter is prohibited in every zone except the industrial zone,” said Ramsburg. “Furthermore, which we didn’t consider, is that the section of the ordinance that only allows the retail store as an accessory to the farm for livestock, nursery, crops — everything except poultry is listed.”

The township would allow the store as an accessory to the farm, but the Ramsburgs would not be allowed to sell poultry in the store. Ramsburg says the ordinance defines poultry as separate from livestock. “My attorney argued that they (those who drafted the ordinance) didn’t exclude poultry by specifically omitting poultry, they just forgot it,” he said. “They don’t specifically say ‘we don’t want poultry farms’, they just omitted it.” The opposing attorney’s argument was that because the ordinance didn’t specifically allow poultry, poultry are excluded.

In short, the ordinance infers that Ramsburg can raise poultry on the property, but cannot process and sell those same birds on the property. Ramsburg postulates that the section of the ordinance in question may have been adopted from another township’s ordinance, and that until now, no one had ever required an interpretation. “We’re the test case,” he said. “Instead of compromising, it’s just ‘no’.”

Ramsburg says that if the ordinance is interpreted to the letter, slaughterhouses are banned anywhere in the township except in industrial zones. “Slaughter is defined as the use of any property for the killing of animals for food,” he said. “So anyone who kills and consumes a deer anywhere in the township other than the industrial zone is in violation of that ordinance.”

During the hearing, the township solicitor questioned how the chickens would arrive at the farm, how they’d be handled as young birds transitioning to pasture, how waste products (which are minimal with poultry) would be handled.

“I think that what I’m doing is increasing in popularity,” said Ramsburg, referencing his pastured poultry and hog operation. “I think there will be others who are interested in doing the same kind of small-scale production/processing. We need to make sure that everyone doesn’t have to go through this process. It isn’t cheap, it’s eating up a lot of time, and it’s changing our plans and goals.”

These issues are being brought up in township that claims to encourage agriculture. Ramsburg isn’t asking for a confinement building, and there won’t be trucks coming in and out of the property. Water use will be minimal, and waste will be removed from the property in sealed drums for off-site composting.

Because the slaughterhouse definition doesn’t allow anyone to kill a bird anywhere other than in an industrial zone, Ramsburg believes that this action could potentially impact those who have just a few birds for their own use — whether the bird belongs to the owner or someone else. “It could also apply to any kind of wildlife,” he said, stating his interpretation of the ordinance. “Ducks, geese, deer. It starts to get into ridiculous hair-splitting, and it falls apart. If you pose a reasonable argument against the slaughterhouse definition, its ridiculous when you apply it to any scenario.”

Both Ramsburg and his attorney believe that Pennsylvania’s Right to Farm law and the ACRE law apply to this case. “The Right to Farm law specifically prohibits what the township is doing,” said Ramsburg. “It includes all of the things we want to do as regular and normal agricultural activity. It further states that a township is not allowed to prohibit those normal agricultural activities.”

The zoning board voted to deny the Ramsburgs’ request, and Ramsburg and his attorney are currently waiting for the formal, written denial before deciding how to proceed. Although this case involves one municipality, the potential for the decision to affect other municipalities, counties and states is a reality.

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