Howard County digs into a new debate over mulching regulations

With its rolling fields of lush grass dotted with farmhouses, western Howard County's lure of peace, quiet and open space has drawn more housing to an area that was once predominantly farmland.

The growth has created tension between newer residents and longtime farmers and the simmering tensions have begun to boil as the County Council debates a mulch and compost regulation bill.


The bill, which is back for a second round before the council this spring after its initial passage in November was declared invalid, would allow farmers on agricultural preservation land to perform mulching and composting, within certain guidelines. When the council voted on the bill in November, it passed 3-2. Since then, new amendments have been proposed that are rekindling a debate that is unique in the region.

Unlike in surrounding Frederick, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, where there is a greater geographic separation between suburban and rural areas, development has cropped up in Howard's rural areas, causing more friction between farmers and residents who are living closer together, according to Colby Ferguson, government relations director for the Maryland Farm Bureau.


Howard's legislation, sponsored by Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty and Republican Greg Fox, picks up where a similar bill from 2014 left off. That bill eliminated mulch and composting as allowable uses on the land. The council commissioned a task force to study the issue and recommend county action, which led to the current bill.

The bill would permit farms in the county's rural residential and rural conservation zoning districts, and on land with an agricultural preservation designation, to operate compost facilities on their properties as an accessory to their farms. It would also allow farmers to seek special permission from the county to produce mulch on agricultural preservation land.

In Howard County, 22,798 acres across 278 properties are designated as agricultural preservation lands and permanently protected from development.

Farmers on these properties say they need the bill because it will allow them to produce more mulch and compost, used for fertilizer, bedding and soil on farms. Some farmers also want the ability to sell some of their excess mulch and compost to bring in extra income. The state's Department of Agriculture regulates the amount of fertilizer that can be spread on fields, leaving some farmers with excess material.


Residents argue increased mulching and composting would have detrimental health and environmental effects, including poor air quality from wood dust. They worry trucks used to haul the material will pose a safety hazard on the usually quiet country roads.

Both sides in the debate have rallied to pursue their cause, bringing out supporters to standing-room-only County Council hearings to testify and plead their case. In a recent council session, Sigaty summed up the bill's goal: to codify the allowance of mulch and composting on rural land, while keeping out industrial-sized operations.

The term "industrial" has been heavily debated, as council members, residents and experts have gone back and forth on what constitutes an industrial operation. Deputy Director of the Department of Planning and Zoning Amy Gowan said the best strategy the county can use to identify such practices is by the size and scale of an operation.

The most recent amendments to the bill, proposed by County Executive Allan Kittleman, are aimed at keeping out industrial practices, including limiting the height of compost piles to 5 feet. The six amendments also include new limits on the amount of material farmers can sell per year to 5 percent of the farm's total sales and require off-site sales be shipped with trees, shrubs or plants.

Kittleman said the amendments are meant to clarify that the bill does not allow for industrial operations on agricultural preservation land. With the amendments, he said the bill will further protect the health and safety of residents while striking a "balance" with the needs of farmers to perform mulching and composting.

The view from the farm

The new amendments worry some farmers, including Keith Ohlinger, who owns a 22-acre farm in Woodbine where he raises cattle, sheep and pigs. Ohlinger, whose family has been farming for hundreds of years but who bought his farmland in 2012, said the amendments, particularly the lower pile heights and tighter sale regulations, are too restrictive.

Walking through his fields, Ohlinger talks of the meticulous steps he's taking to make the grazing practices he uses, involving rotating cattle through 13 paddocks on the property, to allow for the best animal and soil nutrition.

One of those steps includes creating a natural keyline water system for his fields, using rows of Chinese chestnut trees that wind across the farm, with wood chip mulch as bedding. He's using mulch he's brought in from neighboring farms. The wood chips act as a biofilter and help provide the plants nutrients they could not reach by their root system alone.

Ohlinger said he's frustrated by the way some residents have negatively characterized farmers.

"Do I look industrial to you?" he said.

Elsewhere on the property, Ohlinger keeps 16 pigs and 30 piglets. where he composts, turning the pig manure into compost that he spreads as fertilizer.

Ohlinger's compost piles are roughly three-and-a-half feet tall on a quarter of an acre. The piles are within the county's limits for pile height and composting scale, but Ohlinger said if he ever expands his farm, which he hopes to do, the limits imposed by the amendments could make it difficult to continue to compost and get rid of his compost.

If the bill were to pass in the same form as last November without new changes, Ohlinger said it would have allowed farms like his to continue to function within regulations. Further restrictions however, could make it more difficult.

"The entire cost of me having to haul away my manure could eliminate all my profits," he said.

Ohlinger said he hopes to pass his farm on to his daughters.

"In Howard County it has been so hostile," he said. "How are we supposed to encourage the next generation if it's so hostile and we're constantly under attack?"

A sign posted at the entrance to Robert and Leslie Long's Woodbine property. The couple claims past industrial mulching in the area caused health problems for them and their horses.
A sign posted at the entrance to Robert and Leslie Long's Woodbine property. The couple claims past industrial mulching in the area caused health problems for them and their horses. (Kate Magill/ Baltimore Sun Media Group)

‘A right to clean air’

A mile away, Robert and Leslie Long live on an 194-acre property where they breed and raise horses. Across from their land is a tree nursery, one that has previously been accused of mulching operations that were in violation of county code and whose practices were affected by the 2014 bill that removed mulching as an allowable use on the land.

The Longs, who have lived in their more than 200-year-old farmhouse since 1998, have stacks of complaints made to the county and binders of photos showing the industrial work that they claim gave them and their horses bronchitis, pneumonia and other health ailments because of dust in the air.

Those health issues ceased, Leslie Long claims, after the nearby mulching operations were shut down, but she worries that the current bill, even with Kittleman's amendments, would leave loopholes allowing such operations to resume.


"When the bill came back it was horrifying," she said. "I don't want to see people harmed like we were. People have a right to clean air. If this is allowed, we're back to square one."


Robert Long said much of the issue comes down to what he believes is a lack of enforcement of the regulations by the county.

"The county has to be liable for what they've forced on the residents," he said. "This is emotional for us because it's destroyed our lives."

The Department of Planning and Zoning, responsible for code enforcement, must go through a multi-step, months long process once a complaint has been filed against an individual, according to Gowan, the deputy director. If, following an inspection, a person is found to be in violation of the county's code and lacks the proper permits, they are given an abatement period to fix the problem, and if not, the department issues a fine.

If the violation is not fixed following the issuing of a fine, Gowan said the county must take the person to court to seek an injunction.

"It comes down to the police power that we're granted and we don't have the same power as a police officer," Gowan said. "The person's just continuing to operate while they await their day in court. So that's what I think frustrates a neighbor."

The solution, Leslie believes, is to revert to the 2014 bill and add minor amendments to allow for limited composting and mulch for, by and on the farm.

‘Time cures everything’

As the debate has played out over the last 10 months, Howard County Farm Bureau President Howie Feaga said it has brought out the divisions among the community in the western county.

Near shouting matches have broken out during public hearings and rumors and allegations about whether properties are in violation of county or state code swirl. Officials, farmers, residents and experts continue to debate what specifically constitutes industrial-scale mulching and what the validity is of different health concerns potentially caused by the practices.

Despite all this, Feaga said that after the council renders a decision on the bill, which it must do before the primary election on June 26 or be forced to delay action, the community can begin to rebuild trust among the different groups. County code prohibits the council, which also acts as the Zoning Board, from making decisions on zoning-related legislation after the primary.

Feaga said he hopes that continued outreach efforts and education into the community will help ease some tension in the future, and show residents the care he said farmers take to follow regulations.

"Time cures everything," Feaga said. "I'm optimistic in that way."