Stephen Anderson had “one real ambition” for his retirement two years ago: a nice lawn at his Silver Spring home.
“My lawn is such a little fragment of American Freedom,” Anderson, a former parish minister for the United Church of Christ, wrote in a recent e-mail to the Montgomery County Council. “Please respect it.”
Anderson’s plea is one of many from Montgomery lawn-lovers, who are waging a turf war over the council’s proposed ban on cosmetic pesticides widely used to keep yards lush and green.
They’re opposed by a potent coalition of constituencies led by environmental activists, public health experts and concerned parents.
At the core of the case against pesticides is research suggesting that exposure places young people at elevated risk for cancer and other diseases. Less risky organic options, the forces who favor a pesticide ban contend, can still produce good-looking lawns. Their champion is the bill’s sponsor, Council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).
“I think the majority of my constituents want to see Montgomery be the cleanest, safest county in America,” said Leventhal, who lives in the aggressively progressive Takoma Park, which passed its own ban in 2013.
Health and environmental issues have been a legislative touchstone for the council in recent years. It has banned trans fats and polystyrene containers from county restaurants and has imposed a nickel tax on plastic shopping bags that can clog streams. Last week, Montgomery became the region’s first locality to outlaw e-cigarettes wherever traditional tobacco smoking is also prohibited.
Leventhal, serving his fourth term with an eye on the 2018 county executive’s race, has come to embody the council’s regulatory zeal. Also winning passage last week was his bill banning pet stores from selling kittens or puppies from “mills” — even though there are no such stores in the county’s jurisdiction.
An editorial cartoon in November in the Montgomery Gazette dubbed him “MoCo’s Dr. No,” dressed as the James Bond villain.
For homeowners associations and lawn enthusiasts, Leventhal’s pesticide bill is one more nanny-state incursion, this time onto hallowed suburban ground — a patch of their identity that can affect both property values and the esteem in which they are held by neighbors.
“We don’t want any more bad-looking properties in the neighborhood,” said Paul Jarosinski, president of the Cherrywood Homeowners Association in Olney.
“I love to come home after a hard day’s work and enjoy my lawn,” Dean Graves, a 30-year resident of Darnestown, told the council at a hearing in January. “If this bill is passed as written, there is essentially no private property in Montgomery County.”
Opponents have aligned with soccer moms and dads concerned that playing field grass — also covered by the measure — will be less safe if it isn’t thickened with the help of traditional chemicals. They have an ally in County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who wants to see fields exempted from the measure.
Lawn-care companies and a trade association for the multibillion-dollar pesticide industry have joined the fight as well and are pushing hard to kill the measure, arguing that federal and state regulators wouldn’t allow the products on the market unless they were safe if used correctly.
“Please reexamine the public you are serving and ask them if they think they need you to micro manage their lives for them. I think you will hear a resounding . . . NO,” said John Austin, vice president of Green Gardens, a Clarksburg landscape and lawn maintenance company, in a letter to council member Sidney Katz (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg)
This all adds up to the most polarizing issue the council has faced in many years, lawmakers say. Members have been flooded with e-mails and letters. Hundreds of people packed the council chambers for lengthy public meetings in January and February.
“We are hearing from people we’ve never heard from before,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), chairman of the transportation, energy and environment committee, who has scheduled two sessions later this month for testimony from scientists and public health experts.
Final action is not expected before June.
Leventhal, who has four of the eight other council members as co-sponsors, said a prohibition on what he calls “nonessential” pesticides is good policy for everybody, balancing the rights of homeowners to maintain attractive lawns with those of residents who prefer not to be exposed to chemical hazards. The proposal exempts agricultural land, gardens and golf courses.
Pesticide regulation is usually a state and federal responsibility. But Maryland is one of a handful of states that allow localities to pass their own laws. Montgomery would be by far the largest local jurisdiction to do so. Aside from Takoma Park, only tiny oceanside Ogunquit, Maine (year-round population 1,300), has its own pesticide guidelines.
Similar laws are more broadly used in Canada, where the province of Ontario adopted a cosmetic pesticide ban several years ago. But a British Columbia government panel concluded in 2012 that the scientific evidence did not warrant such a change in regulations.
The bill, opponents argue, would add a superfluous layer of regulation to products already carefully tested by the Environmental Protection Agency and overseen by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Carol Holko, assistant secretary of agriculture, said the state’s program “is active and it is effective.”
“Clearly it’s an overreach,” said Jarosinski. “Are you trying to tell me these people [council members] have expertise that the state and federal government don’t have?”
Supporters of the ban contend that oversight has been less than rigorous. They cite studies by the Government Accountability Office and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which reported in 2013 that thousands of pesticides were approved for use without being fully tested for hazards to human health.
EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn said the agency requires “hundreds” of different scientific studies before approving a pesticide.
Leventhal and allies also point to a 2012 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics that says data “demonstrates associations” between early life pesticide exposure and cancer, decreased cognitive skills and other disorders. But the study stopped short of favoring a broad ban, concluding that more research would be needed to establish a solid scientific basis for a regulatory overhaul.
Leventhal said that waiting for definitive proof is foolish. “The absence of incontrovertible evidence,” he declared, “does not justify inaction.”
He likened the situation to the early debates over whether cigarette smoking caused cancer. Those who back the pesticide ban contend that even judicious use of certain chemicals on lawns poses health hazards — for residents and neighbors — that are tantamount to secondhand smoke.
“Lawn chemicals don’t stay where they are put. These pesticides drift and we breathe them into our lungs on our way to work or school,” said Julie Taddeo, a Takoma Park activist who testified at a recent council hearing on behalf of Safe Grow Montgomery, the group backing the bill. She also helped organize support for the town’s ban.
The pesticide bill, like many other county regulatory measures, contains little in the way of enforcement muscle. It probably would be “complaint-driven,” meaning that the public, not an army of county lawn inspectors, would be responsible for spotting violators and alerting authorities. Penalties are a $50 fine for the first offense and $75 for subsequent violations.
Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) a co-sponsor, concedes that these measures are intended to raise public awareness more than to punish. “We can’t enforce a lot of these laws,” she said. “But if they help change human behavior . . . ”
Floreen, a breast cancer survivor, said local governments — including Montgomery’s — have a responsibility to cast a critical eye at federal and state regulation of high-stakes health issues.
“We can’t look to the state and federal governments for everything,” she said. “I will tell you that I believe public health issues are one of the most serious responsibilities that local elected leaders have. I’m very worried about what we put into our environment.”