Composting business's zoning permit invalidated

A Milford-area composting facility that has been operating for over a decade without a proper county zoning permit has been ordered to cease operations.

“The county is prepared to use all of its authority – including legal – to see this situation resolved,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson.

Blessing’s Blends, on Draper Road in Slaughter Neck and adjacent to Slaughter Creek, has been in operation since 2005. Owner Bruce Blessing ambitiously hoped to create a sustainable outlet for waste from the chicken industry, but failed to take a critical step: obtaining a conditional use permit from Sussex County to operate his business on property zoned agricultural-residential.

Despite the fact that, according to the Delaware Code, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control cannot grant permits unless municipal and county zoning requirements are already met, DNREC has issued Blessing multiple permits over the years.

DNREC issued Blessing a Notice of Violation in 2010, and, in 2012, a Secretary’s Order. When Blessing failed to comply, the agency opted to issue a new, amended secretary’s order that allowed him to operate while out of compliance.

Now, Sussex County is between a rock and a hard place due to DNREC’s oversight and their own inaction. Neighbors brought the zoning issue to the attention of the county as early as 2010. In 2012 the Planning and Zoning Department first ordered him to cease doing business. The county failed to enforce the demand.

Lawrence Lank was the director of planning and zoning at the time. He’s since retired and has been unreachable for comment.

Another complaint in 2016 led the new administration, including Planning and Zoning Director Janelle Cornwell and County Administrator Todd Lawson, to take action, and hearings on the matter have been occurring ever since.

One step forward, two steps back

In August 2017, Blessing achieved a momentary victory when the Planning and Zoning Commission issued him a conditional use permit – with a lengthy set of conditions.

Soon afterward, Blessing’s attorney Timothy Willard asked to amend several of the conditions and clarify others. A public hearing on his requests was held Feb. 8.

One condition stated that Blessing could not bring any new, uncomposted materials on site, except those necessary to complete the composting process for materials already there, until a certain pre-composting pad was completely cleared. Failure to comply with that condition, or any other, would invalidate the permit.

The pre-compost pad is not yet cleared, and Blessing recently testified that he was indeed accepting uncomposted materials . The Planning and Zoning Commission did not see a need to further clarify things.

“Mr. Blessing stated…that he’s accepted 10-15,000 additional tons of wood chips and about 20,000 additional tons of yard waste. Not all of the wood chips and yard waste are consumed by the compost. Instead, they are also running a recycling facility and selling the wood fiber from this,” said Commissioner Kim Hoey-Stevenson at the commissioners’ Feb. 22 meeting.

Commissioner Tim Wheatley attempted to find a way to allow Blessing time to wind down operations, but the language in the permit being clear, the commissioners felt they had no choice.

“That operation’s been going on for 13 years,” said Commission Chairman Martin Ross. “You’d think that after 13 years you’d have a viable business.”

And with that, on Thursday, Feb. 22, Blessing’s conditional use permit was null and void.

Still uncertain future

Who will be stuck with cleaning up if Blessing can’t afford it? It’s uncertain whether that will fall to the county or DNREC. However, that was made temporarily moot when Willard on Feb. 26 sent the commission a motion for a rehearing.

Willard cited a violation of his client’s right to due process, rights of notice and opportunity to be heard. He said the deadline for comments and testimony on the permit was too short.

According to Willard, Blessing’s composting business is no longer in operation, pending a new hearing. As of March 8, the county had not responded to his letter.