Members of a task force studying mulching and composting regulations have spent months butting heads on the details, but they have come to agree on an overarching theme: Howard County's regulations governing both processes are in desperate need of an update.
"Agriculture, as a whole, in the county is changing, from just corn, beans and regular crop production to farm-to-table things, horse facilities, hay," task force co-chair Zack Brendel told the County Council this week. "I think mulch and compost need to be incorporated into that."
Brendel, a Woodbine resident who serves on the Howard County Farm Bureau and whose family has farmed in the county for decades, sees mulching and composting operations as another way for local farms to remain financially viable, and thinks regulations should be expanded to make sure they have a place in the county.
"For agriculture to survive, we need to be able to diversify our operations," he said.
John Tegeris, who lives in a suburban development in nearby Dayton and also served on the task force, feels the regulations need to be updated to include more protections for Howard residents.
"We are very pro-farmer," Tegeris said of his contingent on the task force, which identified itself as the "concerned citizens" in the group's report. "I think the line we draw is where is that line where industrial processes on farmland extend beyond what, in our belief, the agricultural preserve program allows for."
The group, officially called the task force to study mulching, composting and wood waste processing, submitted its assessment of the county's zoning regulations related to those agricultural operations this spring, and presented their findings to the County Council Monday.
The 50-page report and another 20-page minority report, signed by six of the group's 18 members, are the result of two dozen meetings, many lasting more than three hours, held over the course of eight months.
"It was at times contentious and challenging, but productive and necessary," Tegeris said of the process.
County Council members formed the task force last summer in response to community outcry over several proposals for large-scale mulching facilities in western Howard County made possible by a change in regulations during the once-a-decade comprehensive zoning process in the summer of 2013.
Ultimately, said Richard Goldman, a Columbia resident and co-chair of the group, "We learned that scale of mulching and/or composting facilities matters."
Natural wood waste recycling facilities – the technical term for mulch-producing operations – should be allowed on sites zoned for agricultural use, as long as the property is at least three acres large, a majority of the group concluded. However, the facility should only occupy up to 10 percent of the land, or a maximum of five acres, they said. Mulch piles should be limited to 10 feet tall, the report recommends.
Tegeris and others in the minority cited health, environmental, noise and safety concerns in requesting that wood waste recycling facilities be limited by a smaller size cap.
Their alternate report contains several pages of analyses about the dangers of airborne dust and fungal spores, fires in rural areas where water is scarcer than in the city, contaminated drinking water and large trucks traveling on narrow country roads.
The group recommends limiting the size of natural wood waste processing facilities to one acre. They also argue that any mulching activity should be "on the farm, for the farm, by the farm," in Tegeris' words.
What should be allowed on farmland that has been placed in agriculture preserve – meaning that its development rights have been sold to the county and the state – was the source of some of the most contentious debate among task force members.
Many of the farmers in the group felt that their rights on preserved land shouldn't be restricted – and noted that farming operations often mimic industrial processes in terms of noise production, large vehicles traveling on narrow roads, smells and other factors. The concerned citizens, meanwhile, noted that agricultural preservation plots could be particularly attractive to businessmen interested in opening up a wood waste processing plant because of the lower taxes associated with agricultural properties.
By "the narrowest of voting margins," according to the report, the group agreed that 75 percent of the end product of those wood waste processing facilities should be used on the farm where they were produced, or on another site farmed by the same operator. Current facilities should be grandfathered into the zoning law, they said.
Other recommendations from the majority report include expanding the county's resources to support more property inspections; requirinf "right-to-farm" disclosures in real estate transactions – to decrease the number of suburbanites surprised by the sounds and smells of farming, the report says – and encouraging wood waste processing and composting facilities in industrial districts.
Brent Loveless, a task force member who lives near an industrial zone in North Laurel, emphasized that the county should take care to ensure there are protections for neighbors of those facilities, as well.
Howard County will also soon need more composting plants – facilities where yard trim, grass, leaves, and sometimes manure, dead animal and food scraps, are decomposed and turned into fertilizer – the report notes.
Currently, about 20 percent of county residents can compost their food scraps, and that number is expected to grow as programs expand. Then there are the businesses, such as supermarkets and restaurants, that don't participate in county composting programs – according to the Department of Public Works, they generate more than 100,000 tons of food scraps a year.
The task force said the county should study the need for both natural wood waste recycling and composting facilities within the next six months.
Council members are expected to to vote to update the zoning law in the next few months.