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Changes proposed to controversial Howard mulch operations bill

Residents gathered in July 2017 to share their concerns and strategize opposition to a new bill being introduced to the Howard County Council that would allow some mulching on agricultural preservation land.
Residents gathered in July 2017 to share their concerns and strategize opposition to a new bill being introduced to the Howard County Council that would allow some mulching on agricultural preservation land. (Kate Magill / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Howard County Council's contentious mulch operations bill made a comeback on Monday and County Executive Allan Kittleman submitted six amendments to the proposal that would allow compost or mulching on some agricultural land.

The bill, which has pitted farmers against residents in the western portion of the county, was passed in a narrow vote by the council last year, but the vote was declared invalid over a procedural timing matter.

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Co-sponsored by Republican Greg Fox and Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty, the bill ignited debate over what could be classified as industrial-scale mulching and possible health and safety consequences for neighbors.

Farmers have testified that they need the bill as a way to more efficiently get rid of the organic waste on their property.

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Residents say the bill leaves loopholes that would allow industrial mulch operations, bringing increased truck traffic and creating health concerns because of airborne dust.

Dayton Rural Preservation Society President John Tegeris, who is fighting the bill, said that if the bill is passed as proposed without Kittleman's amendments, residents are gearing up to sue the county and state.

A bill before the County Council this session could add a host of regulations to relations between Howard County tenants and landlords.

Tegeris claimed that farmers who have received payment from the state to operate on agricultural preservation land are restricted from performing industrial-scale mulching and sales, and that the bill would allow such work.

Kittleman released amendments on Monday afternoon, hours before the council began a work session on the legislation. Among other things, the amendments prohibit mulch or compost facilities from being closer than 1,000 feet from a school building and mandating that operators control dust.

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His amendments also would require that any off-site sales of mulch must be shipped with trees, shrubs or plants. Currently, on-site sales of mulch produced on the property are limited to 5 percent of the farm's total yearly production; one of the amendments would restrict that to 5 percent of both off-site and on-site sales.

Another amendment would also require that mulch or compost piles as part of a composting facility, which as proposed in the bill would now be allowed on up to 3 acres on a property rather than the current 1 acre, be no more than 5 feet high. Height restriction would further ensure the bill did not allow for industrial operations, Kittleman said in a statement.

Another amendment would prohibit mulch and compost facilities on dedicated easements created through the cluster subdivision process, a development tool meant to help protect open space.

Tegeris said that Kittleman's amendments "move in the right direction," but that he still wants to see changes made to the bill to limit truck size as part of mulching operations and increase the Department of Planning and Zoning's power in enforcing the provisions.

If Kittleman's amendments are successfully added to the bill, Tegeris said it's "unlikely" his group would pursue a lawsuit.



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