Mulching debate

Western county residents gather for a public hearing May 19 on whether mulching should be allowed on land under agricultural preservation easement. (Staff photo by Amanda Yeager / May 20, 2014)

Residents of rural western Howard County packed the County Council’s chambers Monday night for more than three hours of testimony focused on whether large-scale mulching, firewood processing and soil processing operations are appropriate on land under agricultural preservation easement. 

Wearing buttons that read “No Industry! Keep It Farm” – the “dust” in industry jumping out in bold, red letters – members of the Dayton Rural Preservation Society, formed earlier this year to fight what they see as dangerous changes to their community if these operations are allowed, offered impassioned speeches, often followed by standing ovations and cheers from the crowd.

The community group includes local farmers and non-farmers, who cite concerns about heavy truck traffic, noise and health and environmental impacts should mulching take root. 

Equally impassioned were a group of farmers, many whose families have farmed for several generations, who argued against a rollback of the new regulations, which they say give them the flexibility they need to make a living. Though smaller in number – there were about two dozen visibly opposed to changing the regulations – their supporters included leaders of some local agricultural organizations. 

Bob Orndorff, whose conditional use requests for mulching facilities in Sykesville and Dayton sparked the current controversy, accused DRPS members of “smear tactics” and “inflaming the public,” and asked the council for “fundamental fairness.”

“There’s no doubt our proposal has fueled emotion and bitter debate, but I want to make it clear we followed the law,” he said.

The two bills before the council would revise new regulations, added during last summer’s comprehensive zoning process, that allow sawmills, bulk firewood, mulch manufacture, composting facilities and soil processing as conditional uses on land under agricultural preservation, a program by which the state or county buys development rights from a farm’s owner to keep the land rural in perpetuity.

The regulations also allowed farm wineries on preserved land for the first time, but that addition has not been controversial.

One of the bills was introduced by Council member Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the west county, and would largely change the agricultural preservation regulations back to the way they were pre-comprehensive zoning. “Natural wood waste recycling” facilities – defined as a commercial facility that processes stumps, branches, leaves and the like into raw material or product – would be allowed as a conditional use, but capped at a maximum of 2 percent of the property or 1 acre.

Council members Courtney Watson and Mary Kay Sigaty have co-sponsored Fox’s bill.

The other bill, introduced by the DRPS, is similar to Fox’s but would remove natural wood waste recycling as a conditional use altogether.

Both bills would allow natural wood waste recycling as a permitted use in the light manufacturing zoning district and would permit composting facilities as a matter of right in heavy manufacturing zones with a solid waste overlay.

DRPS members and some other residents said mulching was an industrial-scale process that didn’t belong in a rural setting.

“We advocate for legitimate farming,” DRPS President John Tegeris said. “What we strongly oppose is natural wood waste recycling of any kind on ag pres or RC land. This belongs in [an industrial zone]. It does not belong in our agricultural or rural neighborhoods.”

Many residents cited potential health risks of mulching as a main concern.

Victor Velculescu, an oncologist at Johns Hopkins, said the medical literature he had reviewed showed increased exposure to fungi and carcinogenic wood dust particles in areas near industrial-level wood processing facilities.

“These are not theoretical risks,” he told the council. A mulching facility, he added, “would make Dayton a petri dish for health experimentation.”

Leslie Long, who lives in Woodbine near an existing mulching facility, said she and her husband had developed sinusitis since mulching operations began. Her horses, she said, had other health problems, such as nasal tumors and conjunctivitis.

“My neighbors say, ‘I just want it to stop, they’re killing me,’” she said.

Kristin Robertson, a Dayton resident and PTA president at Dayton Oaks Elementary School, said she was concerned for the safety of children waiting for school buses along country roads. With increased truck traffic, she said, an accident “is just a matter of time.”

Mark Martin, a Woodbine resident whose family has farmed in Howard County since 1956 and owns a farm in agricultural preservation, said he was also concerned about truck traffic. 

He said he didn’t consider mulching facilities to be a true agricultural operation. “I maintain that these mulching operations are land-clearing operations,” he said.

Opponents of the bills rejected that notion.

“Agriculture is an industry – it’s one of the largest in the country,” said Mark Mullinix, who owns a farm in Dayton. He and his family “have been in agriculture all of our lives, and these things were put in place to help landowners in general be more profitable and stay in this county.”

Mullinix, whose farm is under an agricultural preservation easement, made news in 2012 for being the first farmer to seek a termination of the easement from the state. His requests to opt out have been denied.

Dayton farmer Leslie Bauer said she thought the DRPS’s protests against large-scale mulching would be a “stepping stone” for future efforts. “Today, this group is trying to stop mulching production, but what agricultural enterprise will they be trying to stop tomorrow?”

Bauer's property abuts the site of the proposed mulching operation in Dayton. She said in January that she was working with Orndorff to pave an access driveway for the site through her property.

“We have had the struggles and conflicts of dealing with our more urban neighbors while trying to run the farm,” she told the council. 

Mike Clark, another local farmer, echoed Bauer.

“Where do you draw the line between what is industrial activity and what’s not?” he said. “Our primary purpose in life is not to provide a Norman Rockwell landscape for you to gaze upon from your affluent communities.”

But Dayton resident Julie Brookman said the characterization of DRPS supporters as wealthy neighbors unwilling to accept the realities of agricultural life was unfair.

“I would say probably 80 percent [of Dayton homes] are very modest homes, older homes,” she said. “We are not a bunch of rich folk trying to push our weight around.”

Howie Feaga, who is president of the of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said mulching, firewood processing and other operations were just another way for farmers to support themselves.

“Just like IBM, Google and Apple, we are always changing and evolving,” he said. “We compete in a slim-margin business … Those outside of agriculture have the right to do better in their field of work; why, then, would we not be allowed to do better?”

Feaga pointed out that mulching facilities would be monitored by the Maryland Department of the Environment, and said he supported 10 percent as a fair cap on the amount of land able to be used for mulching, which is about the amount that had been asked for in the Dayton conditional use request.

Lynn Moore, chair of the county’s Agricultural Preservation Board, said the goal of adding extra conditional uses to preserved land during comprehensive zoning was that “we were trying to make sure the needs of the farming community were met.” She said the council needed to iron out details, such as whether equipment will be part of the measurements toward any caps on uses.

“As the farms diversify and specialize, they don’t always have what they need,” she said, which is why she felt it was necessary to allow trucking of certain materials – such as logs or soil – to and from farms.   

“It’s going to be hard to address the concerns of the neighbors and the needs of the farmers and make sure they all meld together, but I think we need to come up with some kind of plan that will do that,” she added.

The council is scheduled to vote on both bills on June 2. If the legislation is tabled, it could not be taken up again until after the general election in November, because of a rule that prohibits the council from voting on zoning matters between the primary and general elections.