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Supporters of Montgomery County’s new restrictions say there’s insufficient regulation at the state and federal level.
New restrictions that would more-or-less ban the use of chemical pesticides on public property and private lawns, including the yards of homeowners, won approval on Tuesday from councilmembers in Maryland’s Montgomery County, just outside Washington, D.C.
The bill passed the Montgomery County Council in a 6-3 vote. Its adoption capped off months of discussions in the Council about whether tougher rules on pesticide use should be imposed in the county, which has a population of about 1 million.
The restrictions specifically target so-called cosmetic pesticides—in short, those commonly used to keep grassy areas looking nice and weed-free.
While other local governments around the U.S. have taken steps to rein in pesticide use, the extent to which the Montgomery County measure covers private lawns is unique for a jurisdiction of its size.
Backers of the restrictions cited the possibility of health hazards and environmental damage from pesticides, as well as insufficient regulation of them at the state and federal level.
“There is enough concern about the health impact of the chemicals to demonstrate that there is risk involved in using them,” Councilmember Hans Riemer said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I think the problem is that people trust their government to protect them. They think that their government is reviewing carefully how these chemicals are used and wouldn’t let people have access to them if they were risky. And, unfortunately, that’s just not true.”
“That’s really where we step in here,” Riemer, who voted for the legislation, added. “We have an obligation to act.”
Opponents argued that the restrictions would be hard to enforce and costly for landscaping and lawn-care companies. There were other concerns as well. “I feel that this bill is going to create a tremendous amount of confusion in our community,” said Councilmember Craig Rice, who pointed out that products people would not be allowed to use in Montgomery County under the restrictions would still be legally available “via Home Depot, Lowe's, your local hardware store.”
“Who would enforce this limited cosmetic use of pesticides?” Rice, who voted “no” on the bill, asked at one point during the meeting.
Later, Councilmember Marc Elrich, quipped: “Nobody here is suggesting that we’re going to create pesticide police.”
“Sometimes you do things in the hope that many, many people will comply,” Elrich added. “Many people will look at this and say ‘there’s a reason for it. I should learn more about the reason for it.’”
Councilmembers Roger Berliner and Sidney Katz joined Rice, casting the other two no-votes.
Provisions in the legislation affecting public property are set to go into effect in 2016, while restrictions for private property will go into effect in 2018. The county’s parks department would have until 2020 to come up with a plan to fight pests without pesticides at athletic fields.
Exceptions would allow pesticides to be applied in some circumstances.
Some of the exceptions involve instances where pesticides are applied to control invasive species, or used to combat stinging insects. Agricultural use of pesticides is not prohibited under the legislation. Golf courses and gardens are also exempt.
Cities around the U.S., including Spokane, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, have also enacted restrictions on the use of pesticides on public property that contain what’s known as neonicotinoids, which have been blamed by some for killing off bees in recent years.
The pesticide ban was a hot issue in Montgomery County.
Crowds at public hearings about the topic in January and February, as well as for Tuesday’s council meeting, totaled over 300 people, according the County Council. As of Sept. 11, the Council had received correspondence from about 1,699 county residents who supported restrictions, and 663 from residents who opposed them.
A court challenge could be on the horizon for the new measures, and it’s far from clear how it would turn out.
In a pair of letters sent earlier this year to members of Maryland’s General Assembly, an assistant attorney general for the state, Kathryn M. Rowe, raised the possibility that the ban on the use of pesticides on private lawns could be pre-empted by state law, and thereby invalidated. But legal staff for the County Council did not believe that preemption was likely.
Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.