BY MORGAN FECTO
From a city composting trial to an official “Veg Week,” there are few things that Takoma Park will not do in the name of sustainability. However, a proposed pesticide and herbicide ban is sprouting contention and questions among residents.
“One of the challenges is that it is so grey,” said Takoma Park citizen Hubert Chang, an opponent of the current draft of the Safe Grow Zone Ordinance. “I think that there is a lot of unclarity about what the ordinance is.”
Although opponents agree with the goals of the ordinance, they want the draft changed or thrown out all together.
“We’ve compromised more than enough,” said Julie Taddeo, a co-founder of Safe Grow. “It’s a good ordinance.”
The proposed ban of the use of 23 products on public and private property started two years ago when Taddeo and fellow co-founder Catherine Cummings started educating their neighbors about pesticides and herbicides.
“This is really about reducing the burden,” said Cummings. “Protecting children, wildlife.”
The National Institutes of Health links pesticide exposure to myriad health risks, especially in chldren, and while both sides can agree on fewer chemicals, all citizens are not on board with the ban.
“It treats our neighbors as our enemies instead of our families and allies,” said Chang. “That is inconsistent with the community that Takoma Park is.”
To the chagrin of opponents, the draft under discussion by Takoma Park’s Committee on the Environment does not say how the city will enforce the ban. Opponents are concerned that this will promote “tattling” among neighbors, or require the city to take on additional staff or a new department.
“It trivializes the matter when people say, ‘what do we need, a weed police?’” said Taddeo. “After two years, it should be easy to follow the law.”
The ban, like any new law, will have a phase-in period of two years, said Taddeo, giving citizens time to learn how to follow it without relying on whistle blowers for enforcement.
Opponents may be thinking about pragmatics, but Taddeo and Cummings’ concerns lie with protecting children and other vulnerable residents from chemicals.
“What you put on your lawn does not stay on your lawn and everybody is at risk,” said Taddeo.
Despite his resistance, Chang can get behind Taddeo’s message.
“I really want to raise healthy children,” said Chang, a father of two who has never used pesticides on his Takoma Park property.
Nevertheless, he believes a milder remedy can fix the issue.
“Education is more helpful than levying a fine for continued use,” said Chang, who also said that restricting use on public property only would be a good starting point.
The Safe Grow draft requires that the city distribute publications about the role of pesticides and earth-friendly alternatives, but it takes outreach a step further by making the “cosmetic” application of the banned products illegal.
Green and yellow
“We want yellow in our lawns, with dandelions,” said Taddeo.
Kit Gage, co-chair of the Friends of Sligo Creek Storm Water Committee, agrees that lawns should have a broad range of plant life. “And bugs that make for a healthier soil and haven’t been killed off,” said Gage.
Ortho Max and Weed N’ Feed, which contain a common herbicide once used in Agent Orange, are just two of the banned products.
“Any effort that people make to eliminate those pesticides and herbicides is a good thing,” said Gage. “But I would recommend that Takoma Park not pass a blanket ban.”
The most recent draft is not a blanket ban, however. It lists exceptions to the ban on these products, such as to kill threatening invasive plants. It gives penalties for violation as well, but does not stipulate the safest alternative products. It also only covers lawns, not gardens.
“If an organic approach can be useful then I’d be all for that,” said Chang. “With the caveat that the organic product can be tested.”
Several alternatives to traditional pesticides and herbicides exist, and are available to Takoma Park.
“Green landscaping companies are cropping up all over and we should support them,” said Cummings. “People will pay for it.”
Gage said that “lasagna gardening,” which involves covering one’s lawn with cardboard and a layer of soil, then planting new grass, can also thwart weeds without chemical aids.
“Creeping Charlie is a weed that really gets my goat,” said Gage. “Now I’m back to a level where I’m more comfortable.”
ACE Hardware on Carroll Avenue sells several pesticides and herbicides approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute, including corn gluten meal, an organic herbicide.
At the July 1 council meeting resident EricLichtenberg said that corn gluten meal could still have an environmental impact because it contains nitrogen that could harm local watersheds.
“It tends not to dissolve very quickly and so would likely not be as big a problem as some other fertilizers,” said Gage, who noted that corn gluten meal was both a weed suppressant and fertilizer.
“But I don’t have detail on its effect vis a vis run-off,” Gage said.
Chang said that such alternatives should be vetted, but Safe Grow proponents believe that there is a greater evil.
“There’s no reason for us to live with the cost of lawn pesticides given the immense chemical burden we’re living with right now,” said Cummings. “We all have to make a sacrifice.
The intentions of the draft of the Safe Grow Zone Ordinance are to make the city green and lawns yellow, but it is still too grey for some.
“There are ways to make this ordinance much less broad, much less all encompassing,” said Chang. “An ordinance that doesn’t ban the use of pesticides among homeowners.”
To opponents, this seems like a fair compromise, but Taddeo said that banning applications by lawn-care businesses, but not applications by private residents, could open the ordinance to legal challenges.
Safe Grow opponent Robert Lanza countered at last week’s city council Citizen Comment session that commercial applicators use “resticted pesticides” not available to the general public.
Taddeo claims that opponents are in the minority. She counts 450 supporters, and the group has gathered support statements from local politicians state senator Jamie Raskin, state delegate Heather Mizeur, and county councilmember Mark Elrich.
But, opposition has been more apparent in the last few weeks. Safe Grown opponents outnumbered supporters at last week’s council meeting 8 to 3. One of the opponents challenged the claim that Senator Raskin supported the draft as written. Resident Carter Dougherty quoted Raskin as saying “there’s room for a workable compromise.”
The Committee on the Environment will discuss the draft with the city council at a work session July 8. If the council decides to proceed, it will vote on the proposed ordinance July 15. It could also decide to delay, or – less likely – to abandon the issue.