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Baltimore County Council considering restrictions on hemp farms

An aerial view of a farm in Baltimore County where nearby residents are angry about the odor from a hemp crop that was part of a state pilot program.
An aerial view of a farm in Baltimore County where nearby residents are angry about the odor from a hemp crop that was part of a state pilot program. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County Council is considering hemp farm restrictions after residents have complained for months about a farm nestled among neighborhoods near Lutherville-Timonium.

Cockeysville Republican County Councilman Wade Kach introduced legislation to prohibit hemp facilities from being located within 2,000 feet of a residential property. The bill also would require harvesting facilities be set back at least 500 feet from the farm’s property line.

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Hemp facilities also would be prohibited from operating within 2 miles of another hemp facility in the county under the proposed legislation. If it’s passed by the council, the legislation would go into effect Oct. 19.

Some residents have pushed for farming restrictions due to concerns about possible health risks associated with inhaling the fumes released by hemp fields. But agricultural advocates say this bill would push hemp farming out of the county.

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Hemp is a variety of cannabis that lacks the ingredient that causes psychoactive effects commonly associated with the recreational use of the plant. Hemp is used in several commercial products, such as clothing fibers and cannabidiol oils, also known as CBD, which is available in pills, creams and consumable goods as an alternative to vitamins and pain relievers.

Maryland lawmakers passed legislation in 2018 to establish an industrial hemp program under the supervision of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

There are currently three hemp farms in Baltimore County, and the county council has received complaints from residents living near one off Broadway Road, just north of Stevenson, that’s surrounded by suburban homes.

Some residents have urged the county and the state to impose restrictions prohibiting industrial hemp farming within two miles of a residential area. Sen. Shelly Hettleman, Del. Jon Cardin and Del. Dana Stein, all Baltimore County Democrats, proposed bills to prohibit hemp farming near residential communities last year, but the legislation was voted down by lawmakers.

Residents say the farm releases an odor from late summer until early November when the plant is harvested. Richard Sciacca, a resident of the neighborhood, testified before House lawmakers last year that the fumes aggravated his wife’s asthma so badly she had to reach for her inhalers.

But the Maryland Hemp Coalition said there’s no scientific evidence that inhaling air near hemp operations can have negative health effects. Kevin Atticks of Grow & Fortify, the Baltimore group managing the coalition, said he understands both sides of this issue, but the bill would create a precedent to exclude certain crops which are not protected under the county and state’s “right to farm” laws.

Although hemp is an agricultural commodity akin to corn and wheat, Atticks said Kach’s bill would require farmers to seek permission to grow hemp through a special exception, which requires a public hearing. Atticks said the bill would lump hemp in with medical cannabis, which is used to treat conditions ranging from seizures to chronic pain.

“In a state like Maryland where development pressure is so high, once you start choosing alternatives to farming, you never go back to farming,” Atticks said. “No one ever un-develops, and that’s a big concern with this bill.”

But Kach said the intent of the bill isn’t to relate hemp to medical cannabis. He “wouldn’t want to do anything that would compromise the right to farm legislation” either, but he said hemp differs from other crops because the Maryland Department of Agriculture, which oversees the state’s industrial hemp program, has regulations already limiting where hemp can be grown — at least 1,000 feet from a school or a park.

“There are some health concerns with the hemp and the people who may have asthma or respiratory problems, so I want to find out why the federal government and the state government is talking about these 1,000-foot setbacks and wondering why it’s for schools and parks but not residences,” Kach said.

Kach said he likely will amend the bill to restrict farms within 1,000 feet of residences. Kach said he plans to reduce the proposed 500-foot setback as well.

“If you’re going to open a brewery or a distillery in Baltimore County, you get your permission from the state of Maryland, but on the county level you have to go through the special exception process as well, so this is the same thing," Kach said. "It gives the neighbors an opportunity to give their comments and concerns.”

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A public hearing for the bill is scheduled for the council’s 4 p.m. Sept. 29 work session. The vote on is slated for Oct. 5.

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