Blessings Blends gets recommendation from Planning and Zoning Commission

The fate of a composting facility in the Slaughter Neck area of Milford is up to the Sussex County Council after the county Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of a conditional use application.

The county council has not set a date to vote on Blessing’s Blends' permit.

Improper zoning

Blessing’s Blends is owned by Bruce Blessing, a longtime Sussex County farmer who started leasing the property at 9372 Draper Road in 2005. He has used it for a variety of purposes since. Controversy surrounding the business dates to 2009, when a video showing an alleged violation of environmental regulations was submitted to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.

Around that time, neighbors started complaining about alleged odor and flies, expressing their concern that nutrients from the pre-compost piles were leaching into the groundwater and asking why Blessing’s Blends wasn’t in compliance with county zoning regulations.

The land is zoned Agricultural/Residential and a conditional use permit is required for the business to operate. Blessing has yet to obtain one.

In 2012, following one of many complaints pointing out the property’s noncompliance, the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Department issued a notice of violation. In response, Blessing began the application for a conditional use permit, but never finished. The county then issued notices to Frank and Marilyn Draper and Francis Drury, who each own part of the land Blessing’s Blends operates on, instructing them to cease and desist all “recycling/mulching business” on the property.

Frank Draper said he never saw that notice.

“I never got a copy,” he said. “And I’m not in the business of zoning enforcement.”

Blessing’s Blends continued to operate and the county never enforced its order.

Sussex County Communications Director Chip Guy said the lack of enforcement was for “unknown reasons.” Lawrence Lank was the Sussex County Director of Planning and Zoning in 2012 and would ultimately have been responsible for alerting the courts of Blessing’s noncompliance. Lank has since retired and could not be reached for comment.

Janelle Cornwell, who was the Planning and Zoning Department manager in 2012, succeeded Lank. When asked, she refused to comment on the lack of enforcement. So did Sussex County Council President Michael Vincent.

DNREC’s involvement

The Delaware Code states that the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cannot grant permits “unless the county or municipality having jurisdiction has first approved the activity by zoning procedures provided by law,” yet DNREC has issued Blessing multiple permits over the years. It also issued him a Notice of Violation, a Secretary’s Order and an Amended Secretary’s Order.

Neighbors have asked many times why the operation hasn’t simply been shut down. Brian Churchill, an environmental scientist in DNREC’s Surface Water Discharges Section, answered that question in a 2010 email to the Attorney General’s office.

“A large amount of pre-compost material remains on site at the Blessing facility and [DNREC’s Division of Water] does not want Blessing to lose their ability to make and distribute compost,” he wrote. “DNREC does not have the resources to compost the material currently on-site into a product that can be distributed. Disposal of the pre-compost materials would be very expensive and well in excess of the amount of bond that Blessing has in place.”

In March of 2012, DNREC issued a Secretary’s Order that required a $250,000 bond on the operation, to be used if they were at any point forced to clean up the site. Blessing couldn’t obtain that, so DNREC settled for the smallest amount required by law: $10,000.

Planning and Zoning’s reasoning

Neighbor Alan Bennett alerted the county of Blessing’s noncompliance in 2010 and multiple times thereafter, yet county officials didn’t take action until hearing from him, again, in 2016. This time, Cornwell told Blessing he was out of compliance and would need to submit a conditional use application right away, which he did.

Following a public comment period, the Sussex County Planning and Zoning Commission voted unanimously at their May 18 meeting to recommend the Sussex County Council approve Blessing’s conditional use. The most recently appointed commission member, Kim Hoey Stevenson, explained the thought behind the decision.

“There have been many concerns expressed by neighbors about current conditions on the property and the smells and other adverse effects coming from it, but these are in large part due to what has occurred there in the past and not the improved operations that have been proposed as part of this conditional use,” she said.

“A denial would likely mean that what is there now would simply continue to decay and worsen the impacts on the adjacent properties, the smells and possibly the environment. A denial would not provide a path forward with new and improved technology that would limit or eliminate the adverse impacts that currently exist. A denial would also likely be detrimental to the solutions that DNREC and the applicant have agreed upon for the site, both in cleanup and for future uses.”

Maria Payan, a consultant for the nonprofit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, started working with Blessing’s concerned neighbors last year. She has been a vocal opponent of granting a conditional use permit. She was outraged by the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation.

“DNREC has a history of not enforcing their own agreements and Blessing has a history of being noncompliant. The county is pushing this narrative that Mr. Blessing has been working hard to come into compliance, but that’s simply not true,” she said. “DNREC failed to enforce its own agreement and get real bond coverage, but they can’t close him down because there’s no money.”

Payan believes it’s imperative for the county to require a large bond before granting Blessing the conditional use permit.

“He needs bond before anything is approved,” she said. “This situation is just getting worse and worse.”

Bennett emailed the Sussex County Council after the planning commission vote.

“A timeline needs to be established, as well as bonding, and the [compost] pile next to Slaughter Creek needs to be removed before a conditional use permit is granted. A dated timeline must be in the conditions of approval,” he wrote. “Members of council, you now have the opportunity to correct a serious mistake and make the right decision for not only the community, but the environment as well.”

Blessing's frustration

Bruce Blessing is frustrated with the attention his lack of proper zoning has garnered. He said that, at one time, he believed the property was always zoned commercial because a cannery was on the site well before county zoning was ever in place.

According to Blessing, that belief was mistakenly confirmed for him by an online county tax assessment map he accessed in the early days of his business. He has a printout of the map, which shows that at one time, the property was mistakenly listed as commercial.

Bill Stephens, of Stephens Environmental Consulting, has been performing various environmental services for Blessing since 2015. In his line of work, he’s often dealt with county zoning.

“When [geographic information systems] came into being and the counties started putting parcel data, zoning and the like on the web, the GIS mapping was based on land use versus zoning,” he said. “The zoning has been AR-1, but the land use was commercial because of the old Draper cannery. Honest and common mistake in those days.”

Stephens believes that the zoning issue is much ado about nothing and is surprised interest isn’t instead focused on the new, state-of-the-art facility Blessing plans to build if he gets the conditional use permit, and the pioneering science it would utilize to dispose of poultry waste.

“Mr. Blessing’s innovative efforts to work with the poultry industry to eliminate the need for land application of [certain] material, coupled with his recent achievements to market organic compost products profitably while simultaneously minimizing and beneficially reutilizing poultry industry side streams will have a hugely positive impact on the environment over time,” Stephens said.

If Blessing is able to build the new processing plant, Stephens said, it will be a model for poultry waste reuse in the future and significantly reduce poultry-related pollution.

“The [planned] facility upgrades will have a measurable impact on nitrogen loadings to our estuaries,” he said. “That is the real story.”