The Montgomery County Council Tuesday passed a controversial measure that will ban the use of EPA-registered pesticides on private lawns, county lawns and at childcare facilities and playgrounds.
The discussion revolved around an unsettled debate about the public health concerns surrounding many commonly used pesticides. Supporters of the bill said multiple scientific studies have linked certain pesticides to being possibly carcinogenic.
“The Council is saying today that the cost of non-essential cosmetic pesticide uses does not outweigh the benefit,” Council president George Leventhal said.
He added that the ban will likely foster a new local lawn industry focused on offering more environmentally-friendly solutions to maintaining lawns.
“We seek to encourage businesses that are consistent with the values and virtues that we uphold as a county,” Leventhal said.
The bill prohibits individuals from applying EPA-registered pesticides to lawns unless the products are being used to control noxious weeds or invasive species. The legislation would not apply to county-owned playing fields, farms, golf courses or on medians and islands in county-owned rights-of-way.
As part of a compromise, Council members Tuesday required the county’s parks department to pursue a pilot program to test organic lawn care methods on its playing fields, rather than outright banning the department from using pesticides. The bill requires the parks department to make an effort to stop using non-organic pesticides by 2020.
Despite pressure from chemical industry lobbyists and lawn care companies, as well as concerns that the general ban on using pesticides would be pre-empted by state and federal law, Leventhal was able to cobble together a coalition of Council members including Nancy Navarro, Tom Hucker, Marc Elrich, Hans Riemer and Nancy Floreen to approve the bill.
Roger Berliner, who guided an amended version of the bill through the Council’s environment committee, voted against the measure along with Craig Rice and Sidney Katz.
Berliner contended that the general ban was an overreach. He promoted an educational campaign to inform residents about the dangers of pesticides. He said the general ban on private property would likely face a legal challenge, and if that fails, a referendum.
“This is not about strength vs. weakness,” Berliner said. “It’s about the right and wrong way to lead a community to a place they have not been.”
The legislation does include an educational component—including a mail campaign to inform residents about the new restrictions.
Craig Rice said the bill could result in increased lawn care costs for housing associations that would affect low-income residents more. Rice noted during the debate over the bill that organic lawn care methods will cost an estimated 25 percent more than traditional chemical methods in the first year, although that could decrease over time. He said not everything the Council does needs to be mandated.
“At the end of the day, government has a responsibility to protect the public,” Rice said. “I took an oath that I will protect the public, but I also took an oath to protect people’s rights, so I cannot support this bill.”
Karen Reardon, the vice-president of public affairs for the chemical industry group RISE (Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) said lawn-care providers “judiciously” use lawn chemicals and this bill may hurt local businesses.
“This legislation means that professional applicators in the lawn care business…will not be able to maintain the county’s property or private property using Integrated Pest Management and using federally- and state-regulated products,” Reardon said.
Already both the EPA and Maryland’s Department of Environment regulate pesticides and register the products available for home use to make sure they’re safe to use as directed. Detractors also questioned how the county plans to enforce the ban. A council attorney said Tuesday he believes officials would have the authority to test soil if a violation may have occurred.
However, Council members in support of the legislation Tuesday said the federal and state regulations don’t go far enough and that enforcement would be similar to recycling initiatives, where although it’s required that residents recycle certain products, it’s largely not enforced.
“I don’t believe you can rely on the EPA to protect us,” Elrich said. “What we’re talking about is a little more clover in lawns. I think we have an obligation to act. We have a responsibility to err on maximum protection.”
Floreen, who recently supported Berliner’s more limited-version of the bill in committee, ended up voting for the amended version of the bill with the general ban in place after an amendment she offered was approved. That amendment moved the implementation date for private lawns from Jan. 1, 2017 to Jan. 1, 2018 to help make sure private homeowners are informed about the new law. The ban on county property would go into effect in 2016.
“The real issue was the time it was going to take to get people to appreciate what we were trying to achieve here,” Floreen said.
Jennifer Quinn, a volunteer with Safe Grow Montgomery, the advocacy group that led a grassroots effort to have this bill passed, hailed the passage of the bill Tuesday. She said she has been advocating for restrictions on pesticide use in the county since lobbying for a similar measure in the Kentlands in Gaithersburg five years ago.
“What it means to us is there will be no more routine, non-essential application of pesticides to grass in the county,” Quinn said.
The bill makes Montgomery County the first large jurisdiction in the nation to pass a general ban on pesticide use, according to Council members. Only two other smaller jurisdictions—Ogunquit, Maine and Takoma Park—have passed similar laws.
There was a packed room of supporters and detractors in the council chambers Tuesday, including a few individuals who wore yellow haz-mat suits. There were cheers when the bill passed.
“I really believe we’re acting in the interest of public health,” Leventhal said, shortly before the bill was approved.