DOBSON — After raising the issue last month, county officials let the public have its say on a proposed change to the county noise ordinance Monday night, before amending the ordinance to allow for “legitimate” farm work even if it violates the noise ordinance.
At a Surry County Board of Commissioners meeting two weeks ago, county attorney Ed Woltz said that a local farmer had brought to his attention that he could be in trouble with the law for taking care of his farm at night.
In the summer, watering plants during the heat of the day can actually harm crops, so farmers like to irrigate after dark. However, the noise ordinance prohibits loud sounds after 9 p.m.
During frost in the spring, strawberry plants need to be misted overnight as well, Commissioner Van Tucker said last month. These things have to be done when they need to be done and not on bankers’ hours.
Right now, if a farmer makes noise after 9 p.m., he is violating the law, Tucker reiterated Monday night, and a deputy sheriff can show up and force him to shut down operations.
Before opening the floor for public comments, Commissioner Larry Phillips warned that changing the noise ordinance would give some relief for farmers, but it wouldn’t get them in the clear with the type of nuisance lawsuits that have been filed against farms across the state right now.
What is happening down east with the hog farmers is groundbreaking territory, agreed Woltz.
First to speak was J.T. Henson. He said he understands that there have only been three formal noise complaints against farmers so far this year. Two of those were for irrigation, and one was for cutting a tree down at 11 p.m.
“This is 100 percent a solution in search of a problem,” Henson said. How are officials going to measure what is a nuisance? What is the decibel level necessary to be a violation? If the farmers are given exemptions, what if a piece of machinery isn’t up to code and is making more racket than necessary?
What about road crews that work at night, Henson asked. Duke Power runs power crews at night. What exceptions are there?
Woltz asked the board if he should read off the list of exceptions. The board consented.
Woltz named normal business activity, church bells, clock chimes, emergency vehicles, sounds at street festivals that have been authorized, properly equipped vehicles, fireworks at events or special holidays, and governmental services.
The next man didn’t give his name, but said he was a farmer. He said that he isn’t interested in aggravating a neighbor, but at the same time he doesn’t want to turn off a machine and kill a lot of chickens or leave off irrigation at night so that plants suffer.
These things don’t happen every night, he pointed out. It’s just a couple of nights a year at different locations spread around the farm. It would be a tough thing to do to follow a deputy telling him to shut down, knowing that move would later result in him possibly losing his farm.
Dean Black said the community needs to stand together. He doesn’t use tobacco products himself, but will fight for a farmer’s right to take care of his plants. People can’t control Mother Nature. Farmers have to be able to irrigate when necessary or other needs that might come up in the middle of the night.
Eddie Brown said he has grown strawberries for 15 years. Not a single year has gone by without the need to frost-protect the berries, with a minimum of five nights.
Brown said he hasn’t had any complaints from his neighbors to him directly, and he’s thankful that the board is bringing this up.
When the public comments ended, Tucker said he has looked around at other counties and couldn’t find any other place with rules as stringent on farmers as Surry.
If there is a situation where the sheriff might have to visit a farm, Tucker said, “we’ve imposed a hardship we should not have imposed on our farmers.”
He admitted that he is not fond of the smell of chicken manure or the mess of red mud, but he likes living in a rural community.
“If they don’t like living in a farm area and hearing farm noises, maybe they ought to move somewhere else,” he said, to applause from the audience.
No, there haven’t been many calls on this issue, said Commissioner Larry Johnson, but why should there be any? Before he got into the granite business, Johnson said he was a farmer, too, and he gave his approval of the amendment to the ordinance.
Dr. Gary Tilley said he was in favor of common sense and he gave his support to the proposed change, too.
“The Smithfield lawsuits didn’t go after low-hanging fruit,” said Phillips. The lawyers went after the big, top farms, and they’ve won. People are moving down here from up north, and they don’t understand there is going to be noises and odors.
Farmers have enough challenges, so they shouldn’t have to face any additional challenges from their local government, he said.
The board voted unanimously to approve the ordinance change.
“If they ever legalize marijuana, and these liberals ever have a crop that’s failing, you won’t hear any complaints then,” said Phillips to laughter from the crowd. They will be out there watering those plants at night to keep that going.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.