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Relations break down over refuse; Howard residents protest smell, noise from compost park


Alfred S. Bassler, the man at the center of Howard County's longest-running zoning dispute, has it all figured out.

People need to stop having babies, he says. It's as simple as that. If there were no more babies, there would be no more houses, no more roads -- and no need for his Forest Recycling Project, where logs and stumps go to die after they have been cleared to accommodate development.

"If you try to close my operation, you're barking up the wrong tree," Bassler says. "If people are born, they are going to grow up and live in a house. If you want to stop that from happening, cut it off at the spigot."

The dispute over the Forest Recycling Project, born of the county's building boom, has been going on for 18 years and continues in the Howard County Board of Appeals. The controversy reflects the changing nature of the county from rural outpost to a suburban mecca where people chase the American dream but would rather not deal with its shadows.

In this case, the shadow is the thousands of truckloads of waste -- logs, stumps and other debris -- produced in the county every year when land is cleared for development. Bassler says he's doing the county a favor, accepting refuse that otherwise would be shipped out of state at considerable expense.

Neighbors have a different view. They say Bassler's 70-acre "stump dump," located off Sheppard Lane in Clarksville, is a fire hazard and a nuisance. Bulldozers and excavators roar on the property during working hours every day. Sometimes, they say, a noxious smell wafts from the piles of rotting matter. Worst of all, they say, is the constant threat of fire, such as one at a similar operation in Baltimore County that burned for more than 18 months nine years ago.

Bassler's operation has caught fire twice, in 1991 and in 1998.

Jennifer Lee, who lives near Bassler's property, said nobody warned her about the dump when she moved to the Twelve Hills community eight years ago. She said the smell from the compost piles can be "rancid," especially in the summer, and she can hear the machines even when her windows are closed.

"A very big concern for us is the threat of fires," Lee says. "Even the Bassler people and their experts say a fire is inevitable with this type of operation." Bassler agrees -- decaying matter produces heat, which can ignite wood -- but downplays the danger. When a fire breaks out, he says, he just smothers it with dirt.

No matter how much neighbors complain, Bassler responds the same way: "It ain't gonna stop unless people stop having babies."

Joseph W. Rutter Jr., director of the county's Department of Planning and Zoning, sees both sides of the debate. He thinks Bassler should get a special exception for the facility but obey a long list of regulations that would make it more neighbor-friendly.

"It serves a need," Rutter says. "We do generate this stuff."

Alternative to farming

When Bassler bought his 430-acre property in 1968, it was a traditional farm with cattle, corn, wheat and hay. But such farms are no longer profitable, at least not in the booming suburbs between Baltimore and Washington. To earn what he considers a decent living, Bassler, like thousands of other farmers in the area, had to make changes. In addition to the Forest Recycling Project, which takes up 70 acres, he has a 20-acre airport, a 110-acre nursery and 100 acres devoted to boarding horses for a relative.

In 1968, Bassler's property was surrounded by farmland. Over the years, suburbia has encroached, and now Bassler is surrounded by housing developments on three sides. His farm is less than a mile from the Columbia village of River Hill, where houses sell for $350,000 or more.

With more houses came more complaints. Neighbors battled Bassler's airport for 14 or 15 years -- making it the second-longest zoning dispute in the county -- before he finally got a special exception for it.

"I guess I've got tenacity, stayin' power," says Bassler, with a little chuckle. He doesn't mind being unpopular. In fact, he says with glee, he kind of likes it. He has a little adage for every occasion, and in this instance it's this: "Those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter."

"I think I'm giving the community what it wants but can't give itself," he says.

'Dirt is what we do'

Bassler, 72, is a slender man covered in dirt -- because, as he will tell you, "Dirt is what we do." Even this early in the season, his face and arms are deeply tanned from long days outside in the sun tending his compost piles. He says he works 10 hours a day, seven days a week, even when it rains, although he does take an occasional vacation. A Jehovah's Witness, he says he has been so busy that he hardly has time to "witness," or go door to door talking to people about God.

Most of Bassler's recycling business consists of four enormous compost piles covered by soil. They all have grass on top and from a distance look like large hills. Close up, stumps and branches of trees are visible. There are smaller piles of firewood and pulpwood, and rows of smaller piles consisting of finer debris, such as leaves and twigs.

During the day, while Bassler and his employees are at work, the roar of machinery is almost constant: excavators, bulldozers, steam shovels. Bassler says he receives about 25 truckloads of waste daily, 365 days a year, each carrying an average of five tons. The refuse will rot for up to eight years, Bassler says, before he sells it to homeowners, nurseries and landscapers.

Composting wasn't his goal

Bassler says he first learned about composting by roaming the forests of what is now Columbia, chasing squirrels and opossums. His parents and grandparents farmed the land that is now Howard Community College and Howard County General Hospital. In quieter moments, Bassler says, he could see stumps decaying in the woods, becoming fertilizer for more trees.

He didn't expect to grow up to run a "stump dump." But in the mid-1970s, about the same time the county-run New Cut Road Landfill was filling up, an acquaintance asked whether he had any ditches that needed filling with yard waste. Bassler did. Word spread.

"I started filling ditches, found it composted so fast I bought a screen [to facilitate the process] and started selling it," he says.

As development increased, more people who needed a place to put their yard waste approached Bassler. He began to charge for the service, which provides his main source of income. After several classes he took through the University of Maryland agricultural extension service, he is able to speak authoritatively about the crosswinds, upwinds and barometric pressure that keep his compost piles decaying at a steady rate.

In the 1980s, Bassler says, he ran up huge bills trying to get a permit for the operation -- which he never received. To pay the bills, Bassler sold 73 acres of his farm to a developer, who built 18 houses on the land.

"Now it's harder to get a permit than ever," Bassler says. If it weren't for a steady stream of bills for lawyers, hearings and experts over the past 18 years, he says, he would have made quite a lot of money by now. As it is, he says, the business yields about $50,000 a year.

Bassler finds the dispute absurd. But he doesn't let himself get too worked up about it.

"I am more an earth lover than a people lover," he says, and he has an adage for the occasion: "People will ruin the earth long before the earth ruins the people."

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