by Terry Rogers
On February 22, 2018, Sussex County Planning & Zoning Commission effectively shut down Blessings Blends, a greenhouse and composting company located on Draper Road. Bruce Blessing, the owner of the company, was issued a conditional use permit in December 2017 by Sussex County Council to operate the composting business, but the permit contained specific language regarding what Blessing could do on the property. The conditions were based on complaints from neighbors who claimed the facility was odorous, caused disease-carrying flies to infest the area and was possibly polluting groundwater.
“One of the reasons we initially applied for the conditional use was to put in automated equipment in order to bag the compost for big box stores,” Blessing explained. “The conditional use issued by the county had some language we needed to have changed, so we went back to Planning and Zoning for that. They were minor, we just needed to change a few words and extend our hours a little to accommodate customers. The county also required me to get a $1 million bond, which I could not do because the bonding agency would not issue a bond for more than the value of the product that was on site.”
Blessing’s attorney, Tim Willard, explained to the Commission that the company had been working closely with DNREC to create a pathway to clean up the site and improve the general conditions. Over the past six months, significant progress had been made to remove a pre-compost pile from a concrete slab per Council requirements. At the time of the hearing, Blessing had removed about 50 percent of the pile. However, the County had given him a four-month window to get the entire pile removed and Blessing missed that deadline.
During questioning by the Commissioners, Blessing testified that about 51,000 tons of material had been removed from the property, but also stated that about 5,000 tons of DAF, or chicken mince, as well as 10,000 to 15,000 tons of yard waste remained. One of the conditions placed by County Council was that no new material could be brought onto the site other than what was necessary to process the existing pre-compost materials.
“It says no new, it says that clearly,” Martin Ross, Chairman, said. “Only what is necessary to complete the existing amount, but in your testimony, you said you had 75 percent of wood-type materials there to complete the compost process. That’s the carbon base to complete the process. When you have 75 percent of what you have out there, you don’t need to accept new wood waste. You may sell it, but you are not supposed to be bringing in any yard waste. Zero. And then, to accept DAF, which is the smelliest, ugliest stuff and just aggravates the whole odor situation. I’m supposed to sit here and use a land-use rule to correct these deficiencies and I am at a loss as to how to do it.”
During discussion about the conditional use permit, Commissioner Ross stated that he felt the Commission’s hands were tied since the applicant himself testified he was not in compliance with the restrictions by bringing in materials he was specifically told he could not bring on the property. Commissioner Robert Wheatley expressed concerns that terminating the conditional use would effectively shut down the entire business since the greenhouse and composting facility were both included in the permit.
“I agree the guy is in violation,” Commissioner Wheatley said. “I hate to shut him down and tomorrow he is in violation. Mr. Churchhill is of the opinion that this guy has made some progress. Sounds like some of the complaints were not necessarily recent. It sounds like in recent times things have improved. But, that doesn’t change what is in the ordinance. I’m just searching for a way that doesn’t cut him off at the knees completely and give him time to wind the operation down.”
Brian Churchill, an inspector from DNREC, testified that some of the complaints, which had been valid in the past, no longer applied as Blessing had made progress in correcting issues on the site. The Commission voted 4-0 to terminate the permit immediately with Commissioner R. Keller Hopkins abstaining.
Blessing claims that the Commissioners misunderstood his testimony. His lawyers have filed an appeal, but he has notified over 3,000 customers that he can no longer accept yard waste and other materials until the appeal is decided.
“When I said we had taken in 17,000 in wood chips and sold them, I meant over the entire year,” Blessing explained. “I didn’t take in any after the conditional use was approved. Most of my customers were residential as we took in up to 100 pounds of yard waste for free. Some we ground up to sell as wood chips and mulch while others we used as part of the composting process. Now, all of that is going to the landfill. Does the county really want landfills full of yard waste? Do we want to be sustainable and, if so, what does that mean?”
According to Blessing, the flower business he has operated for 30 years is still operational, although the Commission considered the greenhouse portion of the company to be included in the terminated permit. Blessing says that the entire matter could have been eliminated had state agencies and the county worked together to determine what ordinances pertained to his business and which did not.
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