Howard Co. mulchers await council’s next move

Staff Reporter

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (June 17, 2014) — Some Howard County farmers have been left in wait-and-see mode after the county council voted this month to send the controversial issue of mulching, composting and wood processing on agriculturally preserved land to an ad hoc committee.
The council voted June 2 to return zoning regulations on mulching, composting and wood processing to what they were before the county’s comprehensive rezoning process last year.
The vote allows time for a 13-member committee of residents, farmers and appointees to study best practices related to those activities and submit a report with zoning change recommendations by Nov. 15.
“They didn’t support agriculture, but they didn’t turn their back on us either,” Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, said of the council vote. “They are going to try to help us out, which is probably a good thing in this election-type atmosphere. ... You can’t have everything.”
The council heard the protest of several hundred applauding, sign-hoisting residents at a May 19 public hearing of two pieces of legislation previously under consideration.
One would have allowed “natural wood waste recycling” but capped the activity at 2 percent of the property or up to 1 acre.
The other, submitted by a group of concerned residents, would have outlawed it entirely.
Residents, many of them part of the recently formed Dayton Rural Preservation Society, have been engaged in a months-long battle with farmer Bob Orndorff, who was requesting conditional uses for mulching facilities at locations in Sykesville and Dayton.
The residents were fighting a conditional use policy that would not have capped the amount of land on which mulching could take place.
Orndorff has accused the residents of misrepresenting him.
Residents said they feared an influx of noisey, potentially harmful industrial-sized mulching and wood processing facilities near their homes. Farmers said they feared the bills would make it impossible to mulch and compost on their properties, which they’ve done historically.
Feaga said he’d like the committee to reach a compromise, capping the activity to 5-10 percent of the farm property.
“The agricultural community never got asked, ‘Hey, what happened here?’” Feaga said. “They just wanted to shut down every kind of composting there is. We can’t do that. We’ve been composting for millennia.”
The dispute between residents and farmers raises other issues, said Ricky Bauer, co-chairman of the Howard County Agricultural Preservation Board.
He said he spoke with a Farm Credit representative after the vote who said farmers in the area may find it harder to borrow money to pay for operations that require conditional uses that might be controversial such as mulching. That would negatively impact a farm’s property value, Bauer said.
“Clearly, the homeowners’ associations are dictating what you can do and what you can’t do on ag ground,” he said. “There’s one of us for every 100 of them.”
Still, Bauer and Feaga said they remain cautiously optimistic about the committee and the council finding a middle ground that satisfies farmers.
“All in all, I guess it’s going to be a good thing,” Feaga said. “But farmers need to know that they’re going to be backed up when these neighborhoods get excited about things.”