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Proposal would make Westminster third municipality in Maryland to ban plastic bags; council seeking input

Proposal would make Westminster third municipality in Maryland to ban plastic bags; council seeking input
Councilman Greg Pecoraro and Councilwoman Mona Becker co-sponsored the introduction of the ordinance to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags in Westminster. (Courtesy photos)

The Westminster Common Council is considering a proposal to ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags in the city and is seeking input at a public hearing Wednesday.

If passed, the ordinance would make Westminster the third municipality in Maryland to impose a bag ban, after Chestertown and Takoma Park. The General Assembly this year passed a bill allowing Howard County lawmakers to charge up to five cents per disposable bag. Montgomery County was the first in Maryland to institute a bag fee in 2012.

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Westminster residents can give their input on the policy in person at the public hearing at 7 p.m. April 24 at Westminster City Hall, at 1838 Emerald Hill Lane. Residents can also mail or email a comment containing a name and address to Shannon Visocsky, city clerk, at svisocsky@westgov.com.

Council members asked City Attorney Elissa D. Levan to research the legality of taxing single-use plastic bags. She determined that the council did not have the statutory authority to do so. She said she also consulted city attorneys elsewhere in Maryland who had reached similar conclusions.

The policy would add a new chapter to city code that would prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic carryout bags at city facilities, city-sponsored events and events on city property. It would also prohibit businesses within city limits from distributing one-use plastic bags to customers.

There are several exceptions in the proposal, including: bags for laundry, dry cleaning, door hangers and newspapers; packages of bags for garbage, yard waste and pet waste; bags that contain prescription drugs provided by pharmacists or veterinarians; and bags used by a business to contain bulk items, frozen foods, flowers or potted plants, or unwrapped prepared foods or bakery goods.

The ban would not apply to biodegradable bags.

The full text of the ordinance is available in the April 8 Mayor and Common Council meeting agenda, which can be found on the city’s website.

Councilman Greg Pecoraro and Councilwoman Mona Becker co-sponsored the ordinance’s introduction on April 8.

In a news release from the city Becker said, “In many ways, residents have become accustomed to using re-usable bags for shopping and errands. However, plastic bag trash is ubiquitous in our area; one needs only to look along the roadsides to observe the pollution. This ordinance represents the City's dedication to fighting pollution locally and regionally, and will position Westminster as an environmental leader.”

The proposed ordinance lists the reasons for the ban as to “protect the environment in the City and the planet; to reduce the presence of unsightly plastic bags in the public streets, gutters, rights-of-way, and trees,” and “to protect the City’s watershed.”

Violations and penalties would include a $100 fine for a business on the first offense and $200 for a second offense within a year of the first. Each violation within the year after that would be punishable by a $500 fine.

In cases where a business owner racked up repeated violations, the city could suspend or revoke a merchant’s business license.

If passed, the ordinance would take effect July 1, 2020.

At the April 8 meeting, Common Council members discussed possible changes they would consider to the ordinance.

Pecoraro, who served as acting council president during the April 8 meeting in Robert Wack’s absence, said, “Over 200 cities and towns across America have already banned them. A number of counties have actively banned them. Two states have actively banned them.”

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He said that they discussed how long it would take for the ordinance to go into effect and chose to give more than a year for that.

Westminster staff contacted the Chestertown government about the implementation of its plastic bag ban, and said it went pretty smoothly after initial resistance, Pecoraro said.

Becker said that reusable bags are ubiquitous and easy to get ahold of.

Mayor Joe Dominick, who does not vote with the council, said that while driving around the city he has seen plastic bag litter numbering in the hundreds caught in the tree lines.

He said one concern was the impact on small business and whether a business with a certain number of employees should be given extra time to comply.

He also wondered about the enforcement burden of the policy.

Councilman Benjamin Yingling said, “I tend to not like government to tell business what to do, but I understand that this is a big movement in our country. I will support introducing this ordinance, but I really want to hear [from] the local business community, get their feedback and learn more about the implications of this for business before I can say I will vote for this.”

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