Howard County legislation under fire from growers

Staff Reporter

ELLICOTT CITY, Md.( May 27, 2014) — A group of Howard County farmers and several hundred residents clashed at a public hearing on May 19 over the issue of mulching and composting on state-preserved farmland.
The farmers are protesting two pieces of proposed county council legislation that would restrict the use and size of mulching and composting facilities and other conditional uses on agricultural preservation easements in the county.
One bill, sponsored by council member Greg Fox, would allow “natural wood waste recycling” but caps the activity at 2 percent of the property or one acre.
Several farmers argued they needed more space, suggesting a 10-percent cap.
The other bill eliminates natural wood waste recycling as a conditional use entirely.
“It’s hard to make hard and fast rules that address all the different situations,” said Lynn Moore, chairman of the county’s Agricultural Land Preservation Board. And it’s even harder to pass bills that meet the needs of farmers and residents. “We need to come up with something that will do that.”
Residents at the meeting who wore buttons declaring, “No Industry! Keep It Farm” have been engaged in a months-long battle with Bob Orndorff, who’s requested conditional uses for mulching facilities at locations in Sykesville and Dayton.
Orndorff accused the residents, many of them members of the recently formed Dayton Rural Preservation Society, of misrepresenting him.
“These smear tactics have got to stop. We must have a civil discourse,” he said. “We only followed the law and irrespective of how the law may change in the future, we will continue to follow the law.”
Residents, some of them farmers, said they fear without new, more stringent legislation, Dayton could be inundated with industrial mulching facilities that would create air and noise pollution and increased traffic from heavy trucks.
Dr. Victor Velculescu, an oncology professor at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who spoke with the residents, said mulching operations create wood dust and release fungi into the air that can be inhaled and elevate cancer risk.
“Wood dust is a carcinogen,” he said. “This would make Dayton the equivalent of a petri dish for health experimentation.”
Large mulching operations aren’t traditionally part of the kinds of farms near Dayton, said John Tegeris, president of the preservation society. Residents will also become tired of protesting each time a farm requests a new conditional use that they believe interferes with the community.
“Keep this out of rural communities,” he said. “Just because the definition of farming has changed does not make it legitimate farming.”
Keith Ohlinger, a farmer from the area, said his family has been farming for centuries and worried the proposed regulations would keep him from composting on his farm.
“I think my whole family would be very sad to hear some of these comments,” he said. “I need to somehow process the manure that’s generated by my farm. … I’m highly educated. I’m highly trained. I’m not backward. I’m not an idiot. We’re good stewards of our land.”
Fox said the council would work to make sure farmers like Ohlinger weren’t oppressed under the new regulations.
But Leslie Long, a farmer from Woodbine, said she feared the preservation group was only getting started with industrial mulching.
“What agricultural enterprise will they be trying to stop tomorrow?” she said. “Conditional uses are an opportunity to expand profit margins.”
Farmer Mark Mullinix reminded the residents that most if not all of their homes rested on what was once farmland.
Mullinix was at the center of a controversial effort two years ago to remove his family’s farm from the state preservation program.
“I don’t think this group is going to stop with just this,” he said. “Let’s get all houses here. That’s what everybody wants.”