When Sam Berley purchased a home on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he was just hoping to raise a family in a peaceful area that reminded him of his upbringing on Long Island.
For twenty years, he and his wife, Patricia, were able to live out that dream as they restored their old fixer-upper tucked away just two miles outside the town of Princess Anne. There they raised two children and enjoyed the quiet, friendly community along Backbone Road. That was until August 2014 when Patty answered a knock at the door. It was Mr. Minh Vinh, and he had come by to show her the plans for six giant poultry confinements he planned to build just 240 feet from their home.
He told Patricia he was just trying to be a good neighbor by telling people he would be building. But he also told her, The law allows me to do this. Vinh was not open to negotiation about how many houses he was going to put up, where they were going to go, or how close to their house he was going to be.
I guess in his mind he was being a good neighbor, but I don’t think he was. You don’t go to someone’s house and say, “Here. Here’s a picture of how I’m gonna destroy the value of the most expensive thing you’re ever gonna buy.”
Soon enough the trucks started barreling in, bringing not only blinding clouds of dust, but also the sickening stench of 270,000 chickens that could spell an end to all the dreams poured into the home and lifestyle Sam and his family had built. A concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, had come to Backbone Road.
The Berleys had no intention of becoming victims of an industrial animal production development scheme that took no account of the people and places it would destroy along the way. They had seen others in the area damaged by these kinds of quick-profit poultry operations executed by corporations and investors who had no connection to the community or the Delmarva region. If Mr. Vihn’s plan was moving forward, they would oppose it with everything they had.
Quickly, the Berleys and their neighbors formed a community group, Backbone Road Corridor, and mobilized to increase what regulation they could on the intrusive, polluting poultry CAFOs popping up at an alarming rate along the Eastern Shore.
Their persistence with the Somerset County Planning and Zoning Board marked an early victory. The result was the approval of minimum setback distances from roads and homes that is, the public enforcement of increased distances between the industrial operations and their neighbors. The win set off a chain reaction in neighboring Worcester and Wicomico Counties that would later follow suit.
While the restrictions of the zoning ordinance helped slow the Big Chicken invasion, the damage to neighboring families like the Berleys had already been done.
We have a deck and a front step that we can’t enjoy like we used to. You can hardly breathe sometimes because the smell is so strong. I have asthma, and I’m concerned about my family developing asthma.
The air surrounding the CAFO is not only filled with traffic dust and the odor from the hundreds of thousands of birds, but is also laced with particulate matter stirred up by the chickens scratching around in layers of feces and feathers. Those working and living nearby are forced to breathe in noxious gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide generated by the tons of chicken manure collecting on the property for months at a time.
Beyond the environmental and health risks, living close to a CAFO took a financial toll. The impact on the value of the Berley’s home was devastating.
What would happen to me if I went onto someone’s property, vandalized their home, took the value out of it? I’d be prosecuted for trespass and malicious destruction of property. Yet someone who owns one of these operations is allowed to do the same thing to me and it’s not a crime? We’re up against a multi-billion dollar industry that doesn’t care how many people it destroys.
Sam and the community of Backbone Road continue to fight at the county and state levels for stronger protections against these CAFOs.
I’d like people to understand that there’s a better way to do this that’s not so greedy. This industry is run on greed and complete lack of compassion for people and their health.
Though Backbone Road Corridor has successfully negotiated some improvements to regulation, Sam believes the real progress will begin when the community and the CAFO owner can come together in constructive conversation and cooperation.
I hope that people on my side and people in the chicken industry will be able to deal with each other more rationally in the future, because right now, it’s almost like a presidential campaign. We’re just throwing insults at each other. There’s no rational discussion, and I wish there was, because that would bring the best resolution.