Howard ag leaders not happy, but in support

Associate Editor

ELLICOTT CITY, Md. (May 30, 2017) — Two Howard County agricultural leaders said growers here are likely to grudgingly support a recent county zoning proposal that would regulate composting and mulching and end a years-long debate between residents and farmers.
“I’m not totally happy with (the proposed regulations), but I think it’s a start,” said Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau. “Not everybody’s going to be happy, but it’s not going to hurt that many people either. … Most of the farmers are busy enough and realize we’re not going to get much better and are just likely to accept it.”
Feaga and county Farm Bureau Treasurer Zach Brendel said they disagreed with the way the proposal singles out land in the county’s agricultural preservation program for more stringent regulation.
Under the proposed zoning changes, composting on rural conservation or rural residential land requiring a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment could be granted a county permit for facilities up to three acres that primarily support farming operations. That would apply only to composting facilities that fall within the state’s first two composting facility tiers. Tier 1 composting facilities only accept yard waste. Tier 2 facilities accept others including food scraps, non-recyclable paper and dead animals.
Any other uses — which would be considered conditional — within those two tiers would need be limited to a facility up to 5 acres or 10 percent of the site. That also includes large Tier 2 permits, which allow for more than 10,000 cubic yards of compost production per year. But Tier 2 composting wouldn’t be permitted on agriculturally preserved land in the county under the proposal.
Mulching — or natural wood waste recycling as it’s called in Howard County — that requires a state MDE permit would be considered a conditional use and would also be limited to 5 acres or 10 percent of the site. On agriculturally preserved land, it wouldn’t be permitted unless Feaga said the government targets land under preservation at the request of residents who live adjacent to farms in the program. The county is also considering a proposal from residents that is more restrictive as well.
The county’s proposal “probably leans more to the public, but it’s a political issue as much as anything, so you can understand that,” he said.
The regulations are unlikely to affect the majority of farmers in Howard County, and some have even joined residents to protest more permissive mulching policies, saying they’re potentially harmful to the environment and unnecessary. But Feaga and others have said the issue, over several years of heavy, public debate, has grown into a referendum on the very nature of agriculture within the county.
Like many suburban counties in the region, its agricultural community has shrunk over the last century as suburban sprawl swallowed many farms that used to dominate the county’s rural land.
“It’s a vanity thing for the public,” Feaga said. “They’re afraid it’s going to be big trucks, too much traffic. All the things that we deal with now that they’re here, they don’t want to deal with.”
With sinking commodity prices, agricultural diversity is more important than ever, Feaga said, and composting and mulching are feasible, profitable businesses that can help keep farming alive. The county itself has also said more permissive policies will help its own composting and wood recycling needs in the future, particularly after heavy storms and other destructive weather events.
“Farming is not a chicken and a pitchfork and a pair of overalls,” Brendel said.
The county has been debating the issue of mulching and composting since 2013 when the county changed regulations during its comprehensive zoning process, paving the way for larger mulching facilities. Residents protested, and the county eventually created a large task force (on which Brendel served) to study the issue. It recommended in 2015 the county revisit mulching and zoning regulations.
The county planning board was scheduled to consider the proposal May 25. The board would then make a final recommendation to the county council.