COURTHOUSE — A retired city employee who is facing animal cruelty charges was involved in one of three separate agricultural operations that used public property off Salem Road without permission to do so, according to the city.
The Independent News also has learned that unauthorized farming also took place at a neighboring city-owned property where a reporter observed men harvesting soybeans on Tuesday, Jan. 5. As The Independent News previously reported, soybeans were grown on the same property where the hogs were found in late December.
The same person grew soybeans on both parcels, said Barry Shockley, the city’s facilities manager. Shockley said the man behind the soybeans has permission to remove the crops.
“We wouldn’t want the crop to go to waste,” Shockley said during an interview on Wednesday, Jan. 20, that included Public Works Director Phil Davenport and Agriculture Director David Trimmer.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Trimmer said, adding that officials hope a farmer might work on that property down the road – and with a formal agreement with the city.
The man running the second hog operation was allowed to remove those animals from Virginia Beach’s land, Shockley said. Officials said those animals were found in better conditions than the hogs at the center of the criminal investigation.
Media attention has focused on the criminal investigation that followed the Tuesday, Dec. 29, discovery of hogs at the property, as well as a complex effort involving many local agencies to aid the animals said to suffer from poor care.
Yet what has emerged since then is a more complicated picture of unauthorized use of public lands off Salem Road. Both properties were purchased by the city in connection to efforts to control development in the area between Naval Air Station Oceana and Fentress Landing Field, according to deeds of sale.
The property where the hogs were is about 16.5 acres, and the other property is roughly 24 acres, tax records show. Some of the land is wooded, however, and it did not appear that all of it was being farmed.
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, a reporter observed and photographed men harvesting soybeans on the larger property. The Independent News withheld the image until its Friday, Jan. 22, print edition in order to confirm the second property was indeed city land. [ Ed. — The photograph appears at the top of this online version of the Jan. 22 story.]
A man harvesting the soybeans said he had seen people tending to the hogs but did not know who they were. He declined to confirm his name.
The discoveries also have led to discussions of ways city public works officials will try to monitor public land. This comes as the city intends to grow the number of properties available for farming through a request for proposal process. Other farmers properly farm public land through such arrangements, which are not uncommon, officials have said.
Davenport said the city is looking at tools such as aerial photography and, potentially, drones, to keep an eye on its properties. He said the city would consider posting signs at properties on a case-by-case basis.
“This is a single, isolated incident,” he said. “We discovered it, we took action, and we are taking action.”
Davenport has been with the city for decades. This situation is a new one.
“I don’t remember it coming up,” he said.
Officials discussed the need to keep agricultural lands productive, and they said information on opportunities to farm additional public lands will be available to those interested in the coming weeks.
Gary L. Morris Sr., of the 800 block of Tuition Drive, faces 11 misdemeanor charges in relation to one hog operation on the land on the 2800 block of Salem Road.
Morris worked more than three decades for the city, retiring on July 31, 2013 as a waste management operator, according to information provided by a city public works spokesperson.
Morris’ hogs, after discovery by authorities, were either adopted or sent to market. The other hogs were relocated by the individual who cared for them, according to the city.
Animal Control Supervisor Meghan Conti described the plight of the animals authorities found in December as “deplorable.”
Morris, 64, was charged with 11 misdemeanor counts.
The charges are eight counts of animal cruelty for depriving animals of food, shelter, care or treatment; two counts of failing to provide water to agricultural animals; and one count of leaving a dead or disabled animal unburied or on a road.
Morris was released, according to a statement Conti released on Thursday, Jan. 14.
According to court records, he posted $10,000 unsecured bond and he cannot be in possession of animals or pets until the court says otherwise.
A hearing in the matter is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 22, in General District Court.
On Tuesday, Jan. 19, Morris told a reporter that he had been advised against discussing the case.
His attorney, James Brice, said he was gathering information on the case this past week, but he disputed description of the hog operation itself as “illegal,” as authorities and media have called it.
The property was not posted until after the discovery of the animals.
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