Composting plan too expensive, councilman says


It should be a triumph of regional cooperation: three counties collaborating to get rid of their yard waste after years of mistrust and disagreement.

But Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a 2nd District Democrat, is turning up his nose at a proposal to operate a $5.4 million composting facility in Dorsey, saying it's too close to a residential neighborhood, too expensive and too tied up in secretive red tape for quick approval.

Despite the likelihood that the Howard County Council eventually will approve the agreement with Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, Mr. Gray tonight will ask the panel to put off approval for a month.

"This project has troubled me from the beginning," Mr. Gray said. "The council has not seen the geological and water studies for the site. We need to know what we're voting on."

What the council would be voting on tonight is legislation approving a five-year contract between the three counties and Maryland Environmental Service, a quasi-governmental agency that coordinates local waste management. Members also are to vote on the sale of the 55-acre compost site to the MES for $3.66 million.

Delaying the votes might not slow the project, however, because Anne Arundel County is still at least two months away from a vote. MES hopes for approval by all parties by the end of April, said Lee Zeni, the service's acting director.

Construction is expected to begin in early June, with start-up before Oct. 1 -- in time to process autumn leaves.

Once the counties approve the deal, MES would award a contract to operate the facility to a private company. The company will compost a minimum of 35,000 tons of grass clippings, hedge shearings and leaves each year.

Until October, when the state outlawed the practice, leaves, brush and grass clippings were buried in county landfills. The Dorsey facility will give the three counties a reliable place to dispose of yard waste.

The agreement would be unprecedented. Past attempts by large suburban Maryland counties to find a way to dispose of waste have ended in failure, with no jurisdiction willing to take waste from another.

A waste-disposal consortium of Howard, Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties dissolved in March 1991 after a study found that Frederick and Carroll were the best locations for regional incinerators or landfills. Frederick and Carroll opted out.

"It begins a small step toward larger-scale regional cooperation" in waste management, said Howard County Public Works Director James M. Irvin of the latest project.

The deal would require Howard to pay $31.37 a ton -- about $250,000 a year -- to compost a minimum of 8,000 tons of material, even if the county doesn't collect that much, said Linda Fields, who directs the county's recycling program.

About half that money would go toward debt service on the property, which could be sold after 20 years and the proceeds shared proportionally by the three counties.

But Mr. Gray said the composting price is too high and has asked council members to give the 40-page contract with MES (( more scrutiny before approving it. He will ask the council to postpone the vote until April 3.

"We need to have as much information as we can when making important decisions such as this," he said.

But Council Chairman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, said the council got plenty of information from county public works officials and can't afford to put off the project.

"Other than people doing their own composting in their backyards, I don't see why we wouldn't move on this right away," Mr. Feaga said.

Among the issues Mr. Gray said he finds irksome is that the county paid nearly $3.7 million for the site in August 1993 -- two years after a state property tax assessment came in at $500,000.

"The purchase price is an inflated price based on an inflated assessment," he said. That purchase price came about only after the county budgeted that amount for the facility, Mr. Gray said.

In addition, the county bought only 35 acres, and the seller, county businessman Wayne Newsome, gave the remaining acres as a gift to receive tax benefits, he said.

"In other words, we paid $100,000 an acre for a parcel that had no roads leading to it," Mr. Gray said. "Give me a break."

Mr. Irvin defended the deal, calling it "standard business practice" to provide such a tax advantage. He said the county paid a fair price for the land.

The county now has plans to extend Dorsey Run Road north to the property.

Dennis Lane, a Columbia commercial real estate adviser familiar with the property, said such plans would have increased its value since the 1980s. He also noted that industrial property in nearby Meadowridge Business Park is listed at $195,000 an acre.

"I don't think they're getting a bad deal," Mr. Lane said. "I don't know how much better you could get."

Mr. Gray said he also is offended by a clause requiring county officials who visit the site to sign a statement saying they will not disclose confidential information furnished by Maryland Environmental Service.

But Sean Coleman, the assistant attorney general who advises MES, said such language is standard in contracts to run government waste management facilities and is intended to protect the industrial processes that private companies bring to the job.

The project also has drawn neighborhood opposition, with complaints about possible noise.

But officials say the neighbors will be protected by a 300-foot buffer of dense woods and that the machine that turns rows of compost will make no more noise than trains that regularly go by.

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