Must clear long-term pile within four months

The Sussex County Council has taken the recommendation of the Planning and Zoning Commission and granted Blessing’s Blends a conditional use permit, but with added requirements.

Neighbors of the Milford composting operation took notice of the property back in 2009 and began to complain to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control about odors and flies. They also pointed out that the 9372 Draper Road property was zoned by Sussex County as agricultural/residential and that by operating a business there without a conditional use permit, owner Bruce Blessing was noncompliant.

DNREC issued the business multiple permits, despite the fact that the Delaware Code indicates proper county zoning must be in place before it can do so.

In March 2012, after Blessing failed to live up to DNREC’s standards, the agency issued a Secretary’s Order requiring a $250,000 bond on the business, to be used if DNREC was at any point forced to clean up the site. They later accepted $10,000, the minimum required by law.

Over the years, Blessing’s neighbors brought the zoning issue to the attention of the county several times. In 2012, the Planning and Zoning Department issued Blessing a notice of violation, but took no further action. Finally, in 2016, after receiving yet another complaint, the department notified Blessing that he would be forced to stop operating if he did not apply for a conditional use permit. Blessing applied and on May 11, the Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval.

However, in the meantime, neighbors organized “Concerned Citizens of Prime Hook" and garnered the support of national nonprofit Socially Responsible Agriculture Project. SRAP consultant Maria Payan hosted informational meetings on alleged environmental risks and urged participants to send their comments to DNREC and the county. Payan and Concerned Citizens of Prime Hook have been a constant presence at hearings and were not happy with the commission’s recommendation.

“This situation is just getting worse and worse,” Payan said at the time.

Her tune changed after the county council’s Aug. 8 meeting, where Councilman Rob Arlett expressed his concerns with Blessing's application.

“When you have an applicant that just basically ignores a violation of the county government … [that] is a really big red flag and is a really big problem,” he said. “I have concerns, truth be told, about DNREC and their ability to perform their job. I want our personnel to be involved in every process if we can.”

Councilman I.G. Burton, whose district includes the composting business, made some significant changes to the conditions placed on the permit by the Planning and Zoning Commission. His fellow councilmen agreed. As Arlett requested, the county, along with DNREC, will now inspect the business annually for compliance.

Burton also amended the permit to state that if Blessing fails to meet all of DNREC’s requirements within four months, including removing one particularly long-term compost pile, he will be obligated to obtain a $1 million bond for the county to use should they need to remediate the property.

Arlett also asked that the county council be kept up to speed on inspections at Blessing’s Blends, and be copied on reports to planning and zoning. With that, the conditional use permit was unanimously approved.

“The community is thankful for I.G. Burton’s amendments and to Rob Arlett, who had the wisdom to tighten the conditional use by giving inspection and enforcement to the county,” SRAP’s Maria Payan said. “This will ensure that if behavior does not change, the county can now shut [Blessing] down.”

Bruce Blessing was not at the meeting, but told the Milford Beacon, “We feel confident we’ll be able to comply with any requests.”