Before a packed crowd of western county residents, most wearing black and some waving signs, the Planning Board voted Thursday night to recommend that the Howard County Council make changes to newly adopted regulations involving natural wood waste recycling, which have raised health and safety fears in rural communities in Dayton and Sykesville.
The decision comes after about two months of rallying by the Dayton Rural Preservation Society, a group formed to protest the new regulations that was able to mobilize hundreds of community members against a proposed wood mulching facility in the Dayton community.
Thursday night, the group came in such great numbers that the meeting had to be moved across the hall from the Planning Board's usual room to the County Council's chambers.
In testimony before the Planning Board, wood-mulching protesters said they were concerned about the impact the process would have on their community, citing concerns about heavy truck traffic on country roads, water contamination, the potential for mulching piles to catch on fire, noise from mulching machinery and the health risks associated with wood dust particles.
Rick Lober, a Dayton resident who presented the group's arguments to the Planning Board, said the scale of mulching proposed on the facility near his home was better suited for an industrial area.
"The county taxpayers paid to put these farms in agricultural preservation," he added. "We've got corporations now buying these farms and reaping the tax advantages on them, in addition to all these health concerns."
The Planning Board had several zoning changes to consider at the meeting.
Both the Dayton group and Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican who represents the western county, had submitted zoning regulation amendments that reduced or eliminated the acreage allowed for wood mulching facilities on agriculturally preserved land as a conditional use.
The county's Department of Planning and Zoning recommended denial of both zoning amendments, instead proposing its own changes that would limit the space allowed for mulching on such land to 10 percent of the property.
The Dayton group's proposal made a much larger cut to mulching space, placing a cap at the smaller of 2 percent of the property or 1 acre. The group also proposed to make mulching permitted as a matter of right in the M-1 industrial district, which is where they said they thought the process belonged.
Fox's amendment was similar in intent, rolling back new conditional use permissions for mulching and instead reinstating the "yard waste composting facility" category in the zoning code and making other composting and mulching processes permitted uses in industrial zones.
DPZ's proposal allowed mulching as a matter of right in M-1 and M-2 districts, as well as added new definitions for sawmills and bulk firewood processing facilities, to clarify that mulching could only be a minor accessory use for these businesses.
DPZ staffer Bob Lalush told the Planning Board that the department's intent in creating the new mulching regulations was to "provide more flexibility for the farming community" by offering the option of additional uses on farmland.
Other conditional uses added to preserved farmland during the comprehensive zoning process last summer include farm wineries and spring and well bottling operations.
"Commercial purposes can help to support farms from an economic standpoint," Lalush said.
DPZ officials have also pointed out that because mulching is a conditional use, any proposal would have to be vetted by the Hearing Examiner before it's approved.
Planning Board members said they saw the issue as one of scale. They compared large-scale mulching operations to burgeoning pig farms in the Midwest.
"The greater issue is we have things that abstractly are agricultural activities," board chair Josh Tzuker said. "Chipping up wood is an agricultural activity, raising a pig is an agricultural activity, so you allow them on agriculturally preserved land. But then you see a facility that is a massive mulching operation and 10,000 pigs going through sties… The regulations say they are agricultural, but the actual intensity makes it incompatible [with preserved farmland]."
They said they also wanted to see more detail in the regulations when it came to preventing health and fire risks.
"These things stated need to be tied to standards," board member Bill Santos said. "I'd like to see the fire chief sign off and get a statement before the council on this."
In its final recommendation, the Planning Board voted to deny both zoning regulation amendments but to concur with DPZ's alternative recommendations.
Additionally, the board recommended that the cap on mulching as a conditional use be less than the 10 percent recommended by DPZ, and that the regulations be updated to include more detailed protections with respect to fire safety, water quality, health risks and traffic on the roads.
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The issue will next be taken up by the County Council. DPZ officials said they hoped to have amendments filed in time to be introduced in May and voted on in June, which is the Council's last chance to address zoning issues before the general elections in November.