Reopened plant good news for many, but residents concerned

September 10, 2013

Sometimes it seems business people can barely say the acronym “DNREC” without gritting their teeth.

They rarely have a good word to say about the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, often accusing the agency of stifling economic growth through heavy-handed regulation.

But there’s a reason for the regulations, whether or not you agree with them. Many citizens want them, especially when they fear their property values are going to be affected by a proposed business opening or expansion.

That was obvious at the Friday meeting of the - get ready for a mouthful -Scientific & Technical Advisory Committee of the Center for the Inland Bays. It was held at the DNREC Lewes field facility on Pilottown Road.

About 50 people attended, including several members of the Protecting Our Indian River group, who came to hear about Allen Harim Foods’ plans to turn the former Vlasic pickle operation into a poultry-processing plant. The pickle plant closed in 2012.

The plan sounds like an economic development dream come true. Allen Harim wants to invest $100 million in the plant and hire 700 people to operate it.

Nearby residents, however, have several concerns, including truck traffic, odor, and most important, water quality, both from their wells and in Indian River.

Matt Hamilton, senior sales manager for Allen Harim, did a good job addressing the issues, especially the first two.

The plant, when fully operational in 2015, would generate 170 truck trips a day, a number similar to what Vlasic had during its peak months.

As for smell - which would seem a prime concern for a poultry processing plant - Hamilton outlined the technology the plant would use to reduce both noise and odor.

“One of the things I encourage people to do is drive by our Harbeson, Delaware operation,” Hamilton said. “The road goes within 200 yards of the plant and there is no smell.”

On Friday afternoon, I took Hamilton up on the smell test for the plant, which sits on Route 5, just off Route 9. I went into the parking lot and got as close as I could to the building. If I had been blindfolded, I wouldn’t have known I was next to a poultry processing plant. Judging by the full parking lot, the plant appeared to be in full operation.

(Yes, I was downwind. Those concerned should also drive by the plant.)

Water, for good reason, appeared to be the main concern.

Hamilton talked about the company’s Cordova, Md., plant, which lies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He said officials there are “incredibly diligent in checking and making sure that our water is safe to go back into the … system.” In the two years Allen Harim has owned the plant, he said, it has not had any violations.

But William Moyer, president of the Inland Bays Foundation, said the dumping of any wastewater into Indian River would be a violation of water quality regulations.

Hamilton seemed unaware of this, but said DNREC would “not permit us to do it” if that were the case. He said the company would have to go through an extensive permitting process once it actually bought the property.

This is where DNREC will have to use its expertise and exercise its sometimes-dreaded regulatory powers to safeguard the area’s well and river water. The permitting process will be public.

On one issue, I have less sympathy with residents who live near the now-closed plant. From letters and from comments that day, it’s obvious that some residents would prefer having the plant torn down.

One man pointedly asked why Allen Harim would choose that location.

Hamilton answered, “The biggest draw is that there are 450,000 square feet under roof right now, in prime condition.”

The man replied, “I don’t think that’s a consideration, when you’re considering the three communities you’re going to affect.”

But if you’re talking about a business employing 700 people - or any number for that matter - saving money by buying an existing building as opposed to building new is a huge consideration. And less wasteful.

There’s no logic in keeping such a large economic asset idle. At 450,000 square feet, the plant is only 120,000 square feet smaller than all of Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth.

We have a similar situation where I live in the Villages of Five Points. Right across Old Orchard Road is a concrete plant that has been operating for many years. It predates our development.

I don’t know how many cement mixers travel the road each day, but it doesn’t bother me, and, more to the point, I wouldn’t have any right to complain if it did. I knew the plant was there when we bought the house. And even if the plant were to relocate for some reason, the parcel would still be zoned for another business to set up shop.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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