Neighbors filled three-quarters of the pews at Friendship Baptist Church in Sykesville last week to grill a local contracting company about its proposal to use farmland in the area as a mulching and wood composting facility.
The proposal, from Howard County-based RLO Contractors, requests a conditional use for a composting facility at 1500 Route 32 in Sykesville, about 2.5 miles from the Carroll County line.
At the community meeting Dec. 19, neighbors said they were concerned the facility would lower surrounding property values, citing the potential for unpleasant odors and noise generated by composting operations. They also worried increased traffic would worsen safety along that stretch of Route 32, which they called particularly dangerous.
Against a wave of questions, the management of RLO Contractors sought to reassure residents the site would be kept under control.
Although the broad term "composting" was used on a letter sent to residents neighboring the Route 32 site to inform them of the conditional use application, RLO Contractors President Bob Orndorff said the operation would involve nothing but wood — no food scraps or leaves would be decomposed at the facility.
"We will limit our application to exactly what we're doing here," Orndorff's attorney, Sang Oh, told neighbors who said they were concerned the company would expand its operations beyond wood composting.
Oh said RLO's application would specify that the company wanted to compost wood, and that any other type of composting would have to be approved by county officials. "This is not a game we're playing," Oh said. "We're not throwing composting out there so we can do all kinds of stuff."
He and Orndorff offered to draw up a contract that would bind RLO to the uses they are proposing, and nothing else.
Before Orndorff and his company can begin a wood mulching and composting operation on the Sykesville property — currently a farm with corn, soybean and pumpkin crops, among others — their request will have to be approved by the county's hearing examiner, an attorney appointed by the County Council to make land-use decisions.
The land is zoned RC, or rural conservation, a category created to "preserve farmland and to encourage agricultural activities," according to county zoning regulations.
It is also under the county's agricultural preservation easement program, in which landowners sell the development rights for their property to the government, with the goal of maintaining the rural, agricultural character of the land.
According to Agricultural Land Preservation Program Administrator Joy Levy, the county bought development rights to the Route 32 farm in 2010.
While conditional uses such as quarries, rubble landfills and yard composting have long been permitted on land zoned RC, property under the agricultural easement program did not formerly including composting as a permitted conditional use.
During this summer's comprehensive zoning process — a once-a-decade reexamination of zoning designations and laws by the County Council — a section on usage of agricultural preservation properties was added, this time including composting and several other new uses such as farm wineries and spring or well water bottling operations.
Under zoning regulations, mulching operations would only be permitted on 2 percent of the property's acreage. For the Route 32 plot, a 90-acre property, that means 1.8 acres could be used for mulching. There is no size cap for a composting facility.
Brian Hughes, who lives next to the proposed composting site, wasn't reassured. He said he would be able to see mulch piles and hear wood grinding from his deck.
"I simply cannot believe that it will not devalue my property," he said.
He also worried about safety along the Route 32, where several accidents have killed local residents, according to Hughes. Neighbors worried that trucks entering and leaving the composting facility would block the road and encourage drivers to use turn lanes to illegally pass by.
"This is one of the most dangerous roads in Howard County," Hughes said.
Orndorff and RLO Contractors Vice President Stan Merson said they would have to get a traffic study for the site approved before they could move forward.
"You're not going to hear from any of us tonight that we don't absolutely care about the roads," Merson told the neighbors.
In an email, neighbor Ashley Royle said the community was also worried about well water pollution, a concern echoed by residents at the meeting. Orndorff said the company used dye to tint its mulch, but that any chemicals would be regulated and monitored by the state's department of the environment.
Merson said RLO was determined to work with the community until they felt comfortable with the proposal.
"Our intent is to satisfy all the questions that you've come up with so we can make a very compatible, state-of-the-art facility that you'll be proud of and that won't devalue your property," he said.