Standing in front of a packed cafeteria at Dayton Oaks Elementary School last night, Dayton Rural Preservation Society President John Tegeris made a call to action for Howard County residents to speak out against a new bill that would allow some mulching on agricultural preservation land.
Residents, including several children carrying signs with messages such as "Save Dayton" and "No Industry," discussed concerns about a bill, CB60, that is set to be introduced at Monday's County Council meeting. Tegeris, who led the meeting, focused on what residents see as risks posed to their health and safety and worries about drops in property values, by the addition of large-scale mulching in the area.
The bill stipulates that mulching practices would only be allowed on agricultural preservation easement land if it is as an accessory to a tree farm and would be in the form of a natural wood waste recycling facility. However, Tegeris said at the meeting that because of loopholes in the regulations, he believes the bill could make way for industrial mulching, bringing with it a great deal of truck activity in and out of neighborhood roads, posing a safety risk to pedestrians and bikers.
Key concerns listed at the meeting also included groundwater contamination from chemicals in the mulch such as manganese, increased risk of mulch fires and increased noise in the area.
"We just can't even allow a minor loophole [in regulations], because the guys that we've been fighting against are smart, they will find loopholes," Tegeris said. "These people are not farmers, they are industrial operators with a history of running successful industrial operations."
A similar group fought against large-scale mulching on agricultural preservation land in 2014, eventually ending in the passage of what is now the current zoning law, CB20.
This new legislation would update those regulations, something that is necessary in order to accommodate composting in zoning regulations, said Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Councilman Greg Fox. Sigaty said the mulching that would be allowed with this legislation is not industrial, but is small-scale commercial work.
"Anything that's being done on a farm as it's written into the bill is an accessory to the farm," Sigaty said. "[It] needs to be in service to the primary use, which is agriculture. All of this is about supporting the farming activity."
Tegeris emphasized at the meeting that the group is also pro-farmer, and that their focus is on protecting the rural communities that include them.
Residents also expressed doubt that the new limitations on those facilities allowed on agricultural preservation land would not be properly enforced by the county's department of planning and zoning. Some of those limitations include acreage limits on the size of composting facilities and natural wood waste recycling facilities, as well as setback requirements for the facilities, regulating how far they must be from property lines, existing dwellings and existing streams and wetlands, according to the bill.
Sigaty said she believes these safeguards will help ensure the protection of communities from any effects of the facilities.
Some western county residents aren't convinced this is enough, including John Allen, who attended Thursday's meeting.
"A lot of people move to Howard County because it's a great place to raise kids, and this benefits a handful of wealthy industrials, and puts our health at risk," Allen said after the meeting. "Who would want to move here?"
Tegeris urged everyone at the meeting to take action against the bill by "flooding the inbox" of the council, and to testify at the July 17 County Council meeting to voice their opposition.