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Howard needs to put limits on mulching facilities [Editorial]

6:15 AM EDT, May 8, 2014

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If you're not paying attention, the notion of a community group coming out against mulching facilities in eco-friendly Howard County might have you scratching your head.

What appears to have started innocently last summer during the comprehensive zoning process to allow mulching facilities, sawmills and firewood processing facilities on agriculturally preserved land as a way of helping farming ended up leaving a gaping loophole, residents have said.

And while any mulching facility is considered a conditional use, meaning it would have to be approved by a hearing examiner, a residents' group worries that the new regulations don't specifically limit the size of these facilities. At the same time, community members have been fighting against a current mulching facility that is operating without a conditional use.

Some 500 residents turned out at the Ten Oaks Ballroom in Clarksville last week to make their point. Fortunately for them, the county's elected officials and members of the Department of Planning and Zoning have heard them, albeit with differing approaches.

Republican Councilman Greg Fox, whose district includes much of western Howard, has introduced a bill to cap the size of a mulching operation at just 2 percent of the land or no more than one acre. Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty and Courtney Watson are co-sponsors. County Executive Ken Ulman said he plans to put in legislation that will limit the size of mulching facilities to 2 percent of the property size, while DPZ is recommending 10 percent and the Planning Board wants the limit to be less than 10 percent. Meanwhile, the Dayton Rural Preservation Society, a community group that formed to fight large-scale mulching on agricultural land, has submitted its own legislation that would ban large-scale mulching operations in rural conservation zones completely.

Ultimately, all seem to be in agreement that something needs to be done to limit large-scale mulching facilities on the county's farms. And we agree. We would discourage an outright ban of these facilities because government needs to have some leeway to make smart decisions. But limits seem in order.