Passage of county bills on mulching, adequate public facilities declared invalid

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

In a culmination of months of controversy and debate, the Howard County Council voted Monday night to pass an update to its adequate public facilities ordinance and a bill to regulate mulching practices in the county.

However, in a turn of events on Tuesday, the votes were declared invalid due to an error in the timing of the votes, according to council spokesman Eric Solomon.

The county’s charter requires bills introduced to the council to be voted on within 65 days, or they automatically fail. Bills are allowed two 30-day extensions; both the APFO bills and the mulching bill used their extensions, requiring a vote by the council.

The issue stems from the fact that the 125th day since the bills’ introductions was Sunday, Nov. 5, rather than Monday, Nov. 6, meaning that the votes were void as the bills had expired. The county’s legislative schedule is not based on calendar days, and due to the calendar alignment of July through October of this year, the council's standard legislative cycle exceeded the charter limit by one day, according to a statement from the council office.

Council members are currently consulting the Office of Law to determine the next appropriate steps.

This most recent problem could possibly drag out an already months-long process to work through issues related to the legislative items, both of which passed on Monday night with significant amendments.

During its meeting the council began with the mulching bill, which aims to allow farmers to mulch or compost excess organic waste as part of their practices on agricultural land. The bill passed in a two to three vote, with council members Calvin Ball and Jen Terrasa voting against it.

“We’ve tried very hard to understand the impact of this on our farming community and the impact on the folks who live around our farming community,” said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who co-sponsored the bill with Councilman Greg Fox. “The county over time has made a commitment to farming by putting as much money as we have into agricultural preservation. I also think that making that decision, we also have to be cognizant of making sure that our farms can do what they need to do in order to be viable.”

Council members also voted to pass another bill relating to mulching, which updates the county’s fire code to create more stringent regulations on mulch piles in the county, including to require natural wood waste piles to be turned every 3 months, cap the maximum height of ground piles at 10 feet and require at least 25 feet between piles on a property to allow for a fire lane.

“It’s really our hope that this becomes another tool in the county’s arsenal to be able to help on the enforcement side of things,” Fox said as he voted yes on the bill.

The council then moved to vote on more than a dozen amendments to the proposed update to the county’s adequate public facilities ordinance, known an APFO, which aims to ensure the county’s public infrastructure — roads and schools — can keep pace with development and population growth.

Significant amendments were added to the bill, particularly in relation to the county’s school capacity test, which determines whether a designated area in the county is open to housing development based on school populations.

The council voted to add high schools as a part of the capacity test, an addition called for by many residents during public testimony on the bill, as well as board of education members.

Council members also passed new capacity utilization thresholds for each school level, which determine when a school has reached its maximum population and should be closed to potential housing development.

The law now sets elementary schools at a capacity of 105 percent, middle schools at 110 percent and high schools at 115 percent.

On affordable housing as part of APFO, the council voted against adding an exemption from the school capacity test for affordable housing units that leverage state and federal funds, a piece of the legislation that was championed by Sigaty.

The final vote on the long-awaited bill was split, with Fox and Sigaty voting against what Sigaty called a “disappointing” product. Sigaty said she felt the bill compromised too much of the county’s economic health, while Fox said the bill was “irresponsible” in closing off too much of the county from development.

As they voted, several council members also took a moment to condemn what Chairman Jon Weinstein described as “mean spirited” behavior by many in the community during debate and discussion about APFO over the last several months. Fox specifically called out Councilman Calvin Ball for what he called “political” and “disingenuous” behavior during some earlier communications about the bill.

“Needless to say it’s been a complex issue, and a lot of moving parts,” Weinstein said. “And this was the best piece of legislation we could muster given the information we have and the compromises that were required; I think we’ve done as good a job as we can.”

Outside of APFO and mulching, the council voted Monday to approve the purchase of six new buses for the county’s Regional Transportation Agency’s fixed route fleet and approved the school system’s capital budget request for fiscal 2019. The Council chose not to vote on whether to add veterans as a group to the county’s Equal Business Opportunity Program, instead voting to table the bill, meaning it could next be voted on at the Dec. 4 meeting.

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