Millsboro residents concerned about potential Mountaire deal

Amidst rumors that poultry company Mountaire Farms is considering purchasing a 300-acre property in Millsboro, a public meeting was held last weekend to discuss residents’ concerns about a potential deal and the potential uses of the property, located between Revel and Hudson roads.

Organized by Community Opposed to Secret Transaction (COST), with the help of Maria Payan of the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project — the same group aiding Millsboro-area citizens’ group Protecting Our Indian River in its fight against the Allen Harim processing plant planned on the site of a former Vlasic plant — the meeting drew approximately 75 attendees.

Two representatives from Mountaire Farms also attended the meeting, including Mike Tirrell, vice-president of human resources and business services, who explained that the current proposed use for the property is as an office site, not a processing facility.

“When we heard that some of the information that was being disseminated in the community, we thought it would be best to come here and talk to you, and the seller agreed to that,” said Tirrell.

He emphasized that Mountaire is currently bound by a confidentiality agreement with the seller of the property that prohibits them from disclosing who owns the property and that no applications to change the current zoning of the property had been submitted to Sussex County.

A number of attendees at the meeting said they had understood that the property had been willed to Grace Methodist Church. Tirrell reiterated that he could not reveal the property’s owner, as Mountaire was under a strict confidentiality agreement, created, he said, “so incomplete or incorrect information would not create misunderstandings.”

Tirrell confirmed that Mountaire has signed a letter of intent to purchase a property in Millsboro, and he said the company believes in being a good corporate citizen and having a positive impact in the community where they live and do business.

“Mountaire is in negotiations to purchase a property for construction of a commercial office building,” he explained. “The property is under review for suitability for that project, and that project only. There are no new production facilities included in this project.”

Revel Road resident Isaac Goodman said he understood that Mountaire has the right to own property but questioned the confidentiality agreement.

“Because if it’s done publicly, then there would be no reason for this meeting. But because it is done in secret, we know as common-sense people that people hide because they don’t want to reveal the truth… What are you hiding from the public?”

Tirrell said there is a difference between a transaction and a letter of intent, and confidentiality agreements are commonplace when it comes to commercial properties.

“It just means that, while the due diligence is being done, it’s not subject to scrutiny because it may not even happen,” he explained, adding that the land needs to be studied to see if it will hold the office building, and be able to support a stormwater management system, and internet and phone service.

The potential new facility would be a workplace for Mountaire employees who had previously worked out of an office building in Selbyville that had to be torn down and others who have worked at offices in Millsboro that were originally built as a hatchery.

Tirrell said that soil testing and boring had yet to be done on the site; therefore, the company could not determine how big the office building could be.

Plantation Lakes resident Jim Birch asked why the company was looking to purchase so much acreage for just an office building. Tirrell responded that Mountaire had looked at multiple properties in a variety of sizes but chose to consider purchasing the 300-acre property. Some of the land, he said, is unsuitable for building, as much of it is clay. Part of the property’s appeal, he added, was its proximity to current Mountaire offices.

“There are no plans — no plans — to build any production facility at this time,” he said, noting that the seller decides how much of the land they want to sell.

Birch said he understood the assertion of Mountaire having “no plans” but requested Mountaire consider cutting off its acreage use to 75 of the 300 acres, and writing an agreement stating no more than that would be used for 99 years.

Plantation Lakes resident Karen Keough noted that she had moved to the community from Wharton’s Bluff following Allen Harim’s purchase of the Vlasic plant.

“It’s following me,” she said. “It’s so sad.”

Another attendee said he was concerned about the potential long-term impacts on surrounding property values and water issues.

“I came from Pennsylvania, and the air quality here is unbelievably bad. We had no idea when we moved here what we were getting into. We didn’t know when we walked out the door that we were going to be inundated with some horrible chicken smells,” added another attendee.

Millsboro resident Dottie LeCates said she was most concerned about the effect on water and air quality.

“Those two elements none of us can live without,” she said.

Tirrell stated that, if something like a production facility were to be constructed, Mountaire would have to go through “huge hurdles,” and, as with all zoning applications, theirs would have to go through a public process, which would include public hearings.

“Is this going to mean jobs and economic growth for Sussex County?” asked one attendee.

“It will for the people who build it,” he responded.

“That’s all I need to know. Thank you.”

Attendee Lesia Jones — who grew up across the street from the 300-acre property, on property that is still owned by her family and was once farmed — said that many of the property’s immediate neighbors were not in attendance at last weekend’s meeting.

“A lot of locals who are facing the property are not here,” she said. “Most have moved to the area.”

Jones said she decided to attend the meeting because a flyer was left on her parents’ mailbox, but that she wanted to make sure the meeting, and any future meetings, would be productive.

“If we’re going to have intelligent conversations with Mountaire — and Maria — we need to identify ourselves, and we need to come together, and we need to have a way to share correct information with each other, so that it’s not just personal beliefs of what’s going to happen.”

Payan said she agreed, and wanted to have a conversation with the Rev. Edward Kuhling of Grace United Methodist Church; however, he respectfully declined to speak with her.

“The pastor was not willing to have a conversation, and that was his choice.”

“He doesn’t have the authority,” said Jones, noting that it would have to go through a church committee.

Payan said she did receive a call from the attorney for the church following her initial conversation with the pastor.

“I just wanted to have a conversation, as a human being, about possible community concerns,” she said, adding that Kuhling had been invited to attend and speak at the meeting.

“Our goal at this meeting was to tell the community what we know, as of a couple days ago. Our goals were to ask Mountaire for a meeting… to talk to the community about their plans,” she said, adding that they had also wanted someone from the church to address the community.

Following the question-and-answer session with Tirrell, Payan gave a brief presentation. Stating that she understood that companies such as Mountaire are an important economic driver and provide jobs, she said the confidentiality agreement still raises red flags.

“This problem is way beyond this property. There is a greater problem that needs to be addressed,” she said, adding that zoning and potential health ordinances need to be discussed. “This is happening all over. It’s not just your community… Agriculture has become much bigger, and it’s not just the family farm with two houses.”

Payan said that, in doing research for the meeting, she had found that Mountaire’s East Millsboro site over the past three years has had four quarters when there were violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Clean Air Act. From 2007 to 2014, she said, the facility had 17 violations with the Delaware Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control.

Residents should be concerned, she said, about impacts on health, well water, property values, quality of life and the potential for a methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection arising from the hazards posed.

“There are more chickens than people in Sussex County. There’s more waste from chickens than waste from people in Sussex County,” she said. “Ninety percent of the water of the water in Delaware is unswimmable. Ninety-three percent doesn’t support aquatic life… We can all do better.”

Payan said zoning is crucial in avoiding conflicts, such as potential conflicts that could arise from having a commercial facility next to residentially zoned properties.

“Zoning is supposed to provide for the harmonious existence for all citizens. A major element under the code is to have zones for all reasonable uses. The major reasonable uses in a residential zone are all activities related to enjoyment of personal property. People who live in a residential area have the right to enjoy their property. They expect — correctly — to be protected from any use in their zone that would infringe on this right.

“They should not have a threat of any large-scale industrialized operation being allowed in a residential zone. They should be able to garden, open their windows in summer, have picnics. And their children should be able to play outside without noxious odors and threats to their water, air quality and property values.”

Payan also quoted Mountaire’s creed, “To provide quality and service consistently. To be honest and fair with everyone, including customers, suppliers, community neighbors and each other.”

“I’m glad to see that they came, because the confidentiality doesn’t seem to agree with their creed.”