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Woodbine farm mulching operation stops, for now

A view of the Oak Ridge Farm in Woodbine from March 2014.
A view of the Oak Ridge Farm in Woodbine from March 2014. (Amanda Yeager)

The owner of a farm in Woodbine that neighbors had charged was the site of an illegal mulch manufacturing operation agreed Tuesday to pay a fine and cease mulching until further notice.

Erich Bonner, who owns Oak Ridge Farm, a tree nursery on Woodbine Road, says that there has been no mulching on his property in months.

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Still, he and the county agreed to a consent order Tuesday stating that his farm, which is under a preservation easement, was in violation of zoning regulations in February, when a county inspector visited the property and observed mulching operations underway.

Bonner will pay a $1,000 fine and agree not to make mulch on his land until a review of the county's mulch-related zoning regulations is complete.

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Those regulations, which were updated last July during the once-a-decade comprehensive zoning process, require owners of preserved agricultural land to obtain permission, in the form of a conditional use, from the county in order to make mulch on their property. Currently, conditional use permissions for mulching are on hold while a County Council-appointed task force considers the proper scope for such operations.

Neighbors, including Robert Long, who lives across the street from Oak Ridge Farm, claim that mulching on the property has created noise and health problems for residents.

County inspector Tamara Frank testified Tuesday that she visited the farm in December 2013 and found mulching product and machinery on the property. When she returned for a follow-up inspection in February, she said, the situation hadn't changed. The county issued a civil citation against Oak Ridge Farm on Feb. 10, according to Frank.

Bonner asked the county in April for permission to continue mulching. In June, the council passed legislation creating the task force, and in August, all requests for mulching on preserved farmland were put on hold pending the task force's decision.

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Cindy Hamilton, chief of the division of public service and zoning administration for the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, said department officials had decided not to accept Bonner's request, though she wasn't sure if he had been notified of that decision.

When Frank returned to the farm this October and November for further inspections, she said the mulching machinery was gone, although there was still mulch stored on the property. Bonner's lawyer, Thomas Meachum, said the mulch was for use in the nursery operation.

Meachum and Bonner had initially requested that the county dismiss the citation, but after hearing testimony from county planning officials and consulting with a county lawyer, the two sides agreed to the consent order instead.

Bonner declined to comment immediately after the hearing, saying he needed some time to digest the decision.

Long, who has also brought a small claims case against Oak Ridge Farm over charges that the mulching operation has damaged his health, called the consent order "a win."

"It's nice to be able to breathe clean air for a change," his wife, Leslie Long, said.

Recommendations from the county's mulching task force are expected in December or early next year. The County Council will then take a new vote on mulching regulations. Depending on the outcome of that vote, Bonner might be able to request permission to resume mulching next year.

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