BUTLER TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Jason Holly hoped for a compromise when he attended the July 14 meeting of the Butler Township Board of Supervisors.
On the agenda was a zoning ordinance amendment requiring hemp growers to keep their crop 1,000 feet away from residential areas. State regulations currently mandate a 200-foot setback.
At stake for Holly is his business, Hempsylvania, an industrial hemp operation on 12 acres in the Luzerne County township.
If the amendment is adopted, he said, it will essentially force him out of business because most of his fields are within 1,000 feet of residential areas.
“You’re basically making it impossible to operate,” he told the board, adding he had asked the Attorney General’s Office to intercede.
“The only time under the Right to Farm Act that a local ordinance comes into play is when there’s a public health risk,” Holly said. “I don’t think a smell is a public health risk.”
In addition, the amendment would require farmers to grow hemp only in agricultural zones, and the 1,000-foot setback applies to schools, daycare facilities and parks as well. Harvesting, drying and packing hemp is allowed on the farm, under the amendment, but making it into oil, fiber, supplements and other products can only occur indoors on property zoned for industrial or mining use.
Holly is one of two permitted hemp growers in the township. The other — Wolk’s Tree Farm — was represented at the meeting by attorney Chris Slusser, who told the board that because his client is already permitted, the amendment may not apply.
Still, Slusser expressed concerns about the amendment and one of the driving factors behind it, which is to address odors from hemp-growing operations.
“It isn’t a health risk and how do you measure it 1,000 feet away,” Slusser said. “I do believe this is pre-empted by the Right to Farm Act.”
A third person who spoke against the amendment, resident Ann Vinatieri, called the proposal a “knee-jerk reaction” and said it limits the growth of agriculture in the township.
“It’s destructive to look at what we have as a future and nip it in the bud,” she said.
When it came time to vote, supervisor Brian Kisenwether made a motion to table the amendment and send it to the Attorney General’s Office for review and recommendation.
“We want to make sure everything is done properly,” Kisenwether said before the motion to table passed unanimously.
Holly was happy with the decision, and he believes the two sides can reach a compromise when it comes to odor concerns. He said the use of misters and aromatic boundary crops, such as lavender, could be utilized for odor mitigation. In addition, Holly said he has hired an engineering and consulting firm from Lancaster — TeamAg Inc. — to help design an odor-control plan for his farm.
“It was a wise decision to table this, and I’m sure we can work together to protect neighbors and farms,” he said. “We’re growing in rural, agricultural zones, not an area where people shouldn’t expect farm smells.
“A compromise to me is having growers be proactive in odor mitigation. Something reasonable that isn’t a barrier for us.”
Holly also invited the supervisors to tour his operation and learn more about industrial hemp. If anything, he added, there is time to come up with a resolution other than a 1,000-foot setback because it will take approximately 90 days for the Attorney General’s Office to review and respond to the amendment.
“If it was passed as is, it could set a dangerous precedent and open the door to other crops being regulated,” Holly said.