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(updates – includes response from Silver Cos., comments from farmer)
Silver Cos., the commercial development business known for its large office and retail projects in Spotsylvania and Stafford, is taking off the gloves – and letting loose the pigs – in its brewing battle with the owner of historic Moss Neck Manor.
Silver Cos. owns 1,209 acres abutting and near Gil Shelton’s historic antebellum home on Burma Road and in recent months has been seeking to lay the groundwork to develop a high-end retreat center on its land. The rural resort would be marketed to host corporate retreats, weddings, and other special events, the company has indicated. Silver Cos. also has acknowledged it plans to seek sand and gravel mining operations on the property, which fronts U.S. 17. Shelton has opposed the company’s plans.
In a move clearly aimed at browbeating and intimidating Shelton into withdrawing his opposition, Silver Cos. has set up swine farming operations on its property.
A portion of the Silver Cos. property is adjacent to Burma Road, which Shelton must use to access his home. (There are two other homes on Burma Road; one is occupied by a caretaker for Shelton, and the other is occupied by a caretaker for Silver Cos.) The company has allowed construction of wire fenced hog pens on its land next to Burma Road. Shelton and his wife, Judy, will have to drive past them whenever they go in or out of their property.
Silver Cos. has 12 hog pens on its land so far. They are located end-to-end parallel to Burma Road for a distance of more than 1/5-mile. The fencing adjacent to Burma Road is a mere 10 feet from a roadside ditch. The company began to have swine placed into the pens last week.
The Silver Cos. envisions a 12-room lodge being built on the property, Honaker said earlier this year. The retreat center would represent an investment of about $6 million, according to initial estimates, and potentially would serve about 30-40 guests at a time.
Shelton called attention to the pig pens in a letter that was distributed to the Caroline County Planning Commission at its regular work session on Wednesday evening last week. The commission is considering amending the county’s zoning ordinance to allow the establishment of rural resort facilities. Silver Cos. is seeking the amendments and has briefed members of the Board of Supervisors on its plans.
The issue drew comments from a couple of members of the panel during the commission’s work session last week.
“It seems a little odd to mix those two,” said Commissioner Les Stanley, referring to the swine farming operation and the company’s interest in developing a rural resort. Later he termed mixing the two uses as “incongruous.”
Commissioner Tim Thompson, who represents the Port Royal District, where the property is located, defended Silver Cos. The company’s development projects have benefited counties like Spotsylvania and Stafford, he suggested.
When Thompson was apprised later of where the hog pens were located close to Burma Road and the fact that the Sheltons use the road for access, he asked, “Jud Honaker did that?” He also questioned whether the editor of The Caroline Progress was a friend of Shelton.
In response, B. Judson Honaker, the company’s president for commercial development, said the property has been rented to Goldman Creek Farm in Westmoreland County for the swine farming operations.
“Most of these operations are done in a very unprofessional manner,” Honaker conceded as he discussed the pig pens with The Caroline Progress by phone on Tuesday of this week.
When asked if he wanted to respond to comments by Stanley about the seemingly odd idea of putting pig pens on a property where his company wants to develop a rural resort, Honaker noted that the swine are located at one end of the property. Given how large the property is and how removed the pig pens would be from the proposed lodge, Honaker said, “I don’t think it’s so hard…It’s not so unimaginable, so to speak.”
Sewage sludge has been applied to nearby farm land for fertilizer, he noted, and it gives off a strong, pungent odor. “It’s pretty rough,” said Honaker.
Asked what the connection was between applying sewage sludge to a nearby farm and putting pig pens on the same property as the proposed rural resort, he said, “I guess my point is…they can co-exist.”
When asked if he was prepared to say that the placement of the pig pens was the sole idea of the farmer who rented the land, Honaker said, “I don’t appreciate the tone of that question,” and he subsequently ended the phone call.
When contacted by phone, the farmer, Jimmy Wilkerson indicated he was instructed by Honaker to build the pig pens “all the way down to the other end, and it would be fine.”
“He okayed it,” added Wilkerson. The idea was to keep the pig pens far away from the company’s proposed lodge, he said.
Wilkerson said he grows commodity crops and has raised cattle in the past. This is his first venture raising swine, he said.
The pigs pens encompass over 110,000 square feet, Shelton noted in his April 2 letter to the Planning Commission. Each pen will hold 30-40 pigs, a total of 350-450, he estimated. That would make it the largest commercial swine farm in Caroline and one of the largest in the state, said Shelton.
“Silver should be proud of becoming such a major economic factor in swine herding in Caroline County and Virginia,” said Shelton, who declined to be interviewed for this report.
He went on to question whether the pig farming would “fit in well” with the company’s plan for a rural resort. “The goal of the rural resort is to attract conferences, tourists and events such as weddings. There is a certain stigma about swine, deserved or not, that dates back to biblical times.”
“A CEO who would approve arrangements for a conference might be concerned himself or for some of his people to attend a conference with a large commercial swine operation nearby…It probably would be the most difficult of all to get a prospective bride to agree to be married near a swine herd. Therefore, the county might consider which is more important, a rural resort or a swine herd, in making its decision on the uses for Silver’s parcel.”
Shelton also noted the 2009 outbreak of swine flu and guidelines developed by the Centers for Disease for Control for owners and operators of swine farms.
The placement of the hog pens is “a bit strange,” wrote Shelton. The pens are exposed to the sun except for two 8-foot by 8-foot, three-sided sheds in each one. Swine die easily in summer heat without adequate shade or water to lie in, argued Shelton. The pens also are located about a half-mile from the barracks area of Fort A.P. Hill, where military personnel live temporarily while under going training on the installation; the trainees will be “much more susceptible” to contracting swine flue, contended Shelton. In addition, the swine pens are located uphill from Ware Creek, and heavy rainfall could mix with swine waste and flow into the creek, he argued.
Lastly, Shelton noted the hog pens required the installation of about 1,800 feet of water pipe from Ware Pond, and they are located 2,400 from the main service road on the Silver Cos. property. The pens could have been built near the service road, which would have required only about 150 feet of water line, he noted, and the service road could have been used for feeding and watering operations instead of traveling across fields and valuable crop land.
“What was the reason for the pens’ placement on Burma Road?” asked Shelton.
Lt. Col. Peter Dargle, commander of Fort A.P. Hill, “is always concerned about the health and safety of his workforce,” said Robert McElroy, a spokesman for the Army installation. However, Dargle declined to comment specifically about the hog pens. “If an issue arises in the future,” said McElroy, “he will respond as necessary.”