The Montgomery County Council voted 6 to 3 Tuesday to restrict the use of cosmetic pesticides on private lawns, on certain county land, and at child-care facilities and playgrounds. Passage of the measure reflects growing concern about research linking cancer with exposure to certain chemicals used in commercial pesticides and herbicides, such as Dicamba, 2,4-D and glyphosate.
Here are the five things to know about the bill, which makes the county the first major jurisdiction in the United States to impose such a ban:
1. The council’s debate may have previewed the 2018 county executive race. Likely candidates were carefully aligned with the segments of the Democratic primary electorate they will need if they run. Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), the bill’s author, and Marc Elrich (D-At Large) a key co-sponsor, are both Takoma Park residents who would actively court the left end of the county’s progressive political spectrum. Council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who unsuccessfully argued for exempting private property from the ban in a more moderate substitute bill, positioned himself as a progressive but pragmatic leader. Council member Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), perhaps the council’s most pro-business member, cast his “no” vote with an eye toward that constituency. He also spoke to race and class divides that often run through environmental legislation, raising concerns about lower-income families who want to preserve the traditional curb appeal of their homes with attractive lawns.
2. It isn’t over. Expect lawsuits from homeowners and the local lawn-care industry challenging the county’s intervention in a regulatory area controlled by the state and federal governments. A referendum is another possibility for opponents, though it is a heavy lift. Placing a law on the ballot requires signatures of 5 percent of the county’s 623,000 registered voters within 90 days of the measure’s effective date, which in this case is Jan. 1, 2018.
3. The county parks department sounds as if it couldn’t be less enthusiastic about pesticide-free playing fields. “We’ll try,” director Mike Riley said Tuesday in discussing the organics pilot program mandated by the bill. Riley has maintained that organic turf management would not be effective on heavily used athletic fields in the wet Mid-Atlantic region. The department is supposed to produce a plan to make the county’s nearly 300 playing fields pesticide-free by 2020. Look for this dispute to continue, especially if Leventhal becomes the next county executive.
4. Golf courses maintain their privileged status. In 2013, when the council extended its smoking ban to most county-owned or leased property, it exempted county-owned golf courses. The links, where pesticides and herbicides are heavily used, got another pass with this week’s bill. Leventhal was quite open about avoiding a fight that would have mobilized well-financed and influential opposition. He called the exemption “a judgment call as well as a political call.” On Monday night, the Rockville City Council voted to include its city-owned course in a ban on outdoor smoking at city parks.
5. Rachel Carson. Her legacy of early warnings about the long-term dangers of pesticide misuse loomed large over the council’s debate. The author of “Silent Spring” was a Silver Spring resident who lived in a two-story rambler in the Colesville community from 1957 until her death from breast cancer in 1964.