2016-04-08 / Front Page

SoPo supports pesticide plan

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Left, a section of the South Portland Municipal Golf Course shows the damage from winter weather, if not insects and other pests. Because of the special needs of the golf course, it has been exempted for three years from a citywide pesticide use ordinance now before the city council, which would largely ban the use of synthetic pesticides in favor of organic solutions. (Duke Harrington photo) Left, a section of the South Portland Municipal Golf Course shows the damage from winter weather, if not insects and other pests. Because of the special needs of the golf course, it has been exempted for three years from a citywide pesticide use ordinance now before the city council, which would largely ban the use of synthetic pesticides in favor of organic solutions. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Although it said a few tweaks are needed before final passage, the City Council on Monday unanimously approved the first reading of a citywide ban on synthetic pesticides.

The idea has been in the works since June 2015, following a presentation to the council by grassroots environmental group Protect South Portland, the same group that successfully lobbied for a local ban on tar sands oil.

“Nature, the way it is, if left alone, does very well,” PSP president Rachel Burger said.

According to the city’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, the ordinance would ban the use of most synthetic pesticides throughout the city, exempting only chemicals allowed by the Organic Materials Review Institute or free from regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Also cleared for use are synthetics used to promote public safety, such as to eradicate poisonous plants, and to control invasive insects. Meanwhile, most organic pesticides would be OK for use.

“Organics would be allowed unless specifically prohibited and synthetics prohibited unless specifically allowed,” Rosenbach said.

If adopted, the new ordinance would create a seven member pest management advisory committee (PMAC), made up of the city’s stormwater program coordinator, the parks director, two members of the Maine Board of Pesticide Control – at least one of whom must have experience in organic land care management – and three city residents.

The PMAC would process waiver applications, develop public education programs, issue annual reports, and review the ordinance every three years for possible amendments.

Because of the expected kickback from residents, the ordinance has a longer than usual lead-in time, not becoming effective, if passed, until May 1, 2017. Even then, the pesticide ban would only apply to most city owned property. It would not be enforced against private property owners until May 1, 2018.

“We know that this is a cultural change as much as a policy change,” Rosenbach said, addressing the need for a wide-ranging outreach program.

Meanwhile, golf courses are exempt until May 1, 2019. Until then, the ban on synthetic pesticides would not apply to the playing surfaces of private golf courses, meaning the Sable Oaks Golf Club, or the tees and greens of the municipal golf course.

“The city faces challenges in attracting golfers to our municipal course,” Rosenbach said, indirectly referencing revenue shortfalls the South Portland nine-hole course has experienced in recent years.

“There are currently few, if any, examples of golf courses that are being managed successfully without some synthetic pesticide use . . . and none for small municipal courses,” Rosenbach also told the council in an accompanying memo to her April 4 presentation. “Golf course playing surfaces are entirely different from lawns, parks and turf. The game of golf requires specific management practices to maintain adequate playing surfaces.”

Although councilors voted unanimously on the first reading of the pesticide ban, some signaled they may bail on the final passage if certain edits are not made. Among the requested alternations, councilors asked clarification of a 75-foot setback on all pesticide use from open waters, provisions to speed up the waiver process, and an explanation of how the ban would be enforced.

Several speakers Monday raised the enforcement question, including Colchester Drive resident Albert DiMillo, who was otherwise on hand to address the new municipal budget.

“It’s great to have another committee, you’ve only got 13 or 14 boards, but not a finance committee. You’ve really got your priorities straight,” he told the council.

“But there is no way in the world you can enforce this. It’s like the ban on fireworks, and you can hear those for weeks before and after July 4th,” DiMillo said. “Are we going to have 100 new cops driving around to see who’s putting down the wrong chemicals on their lawns? This is insane.

“And you want another lawsuit? If you are going to enforce this on the private landowners, you absolutely have to do this at the golf course. But you like lawsuits,” DiMillo said.

A number of industry representatives also spoke Monday, most saying they generally try to use organics first, or else adhere to an integrated pest management system that considers soil health first, but that they needed to be free to use synthetic pesticides as licensed by the state.

Chris O’Neil, of the New England Pest Management Association, was particularly concerned with the two-week time-frame to get a waiver hearing from the PMAC group.

“I don’t mean to engage in hyperbole, but imagine if you had to wait two weeks to get an appointment with the fire truck while your house is burning down,” he said.

But just an important, O’Neil said, state and federal regulations already protect local residents.

“My group is here to attest that the board or pest control has not gone on sabbatical, they are here and they are still regulating the industry quite well,” he said.

James Cohen, an attorney with the Portland firm Verrill Dana, who represents the advocacy group Mainers for Greener Communities, said the ordinance should strive for an integrated approach, rather than drawing a hard line between synthetic and organic pesticides.

“In order for this ordinance to work, it has to be filled with exemptions,” he said. “And why? Because the organic pesticides do not necessarily work. Organic substances may be toxic as well. In fact, they may be highly toxic to pollinators.”

“There is a presumption here that anything synthetic is bad and anything organic is good, and that just isn’t the case,” said Charles McNutt, a member of South Portland’s city conservation commission.

Meanwhile, Phil Roberts, owner of Broadway Gardens, said the motive of those who apply and sell pesticides is not pure profit, but to see a job done right.

“We aren’t down here to save synesthetic pesticides for our pocket books,” he said. “On the retail end, we actually make more money on organics, because of the constant need for reapplication and their limited effectiveness against certain pests.”

Because the ordinance only regulates the use of pesticides and not their sale or possession, it does not address plants pre-treated with neonicotinoids, like those sold at Broadway Gardens and other greenhouses.

Perhaps unusual in recent city council sessions, testimony from industry representatives actually seemed to sway those at the dais, as well as many members of the audience, or to at least place doubt in their minds

“I came in here this evening and I thought I knew the answer, and where you should be going,” said Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte. “But every time someone stands up I think yes, they’ve got a really good point. This is not an easy one.”

Councilor Linda Cohen agreed, saying she had been thinking the same thing as industry representatives spoke. Maybe, she said, the ordinance goes too far, too soon.

“Where’s the compromise? Right now we have nothing and people can do absolutely whatever they want. And then there’s this [ordinance] that bans so much, and I feel like we’ve bypassed the middle. I believe in baby steps,” she said.

However, others, like Councilor Patti Smith, strongly endorsed the new rules, calling “a really well thought out piece of ordinance language.”

“We are trying to become a more sustainable community,” Councilor Claude Morgan agreed. “We are trying to train people away from the sort of throwaway society that we have become.

“Will people break the rules? Yes, I imagine they will,” Morgan said. “But I believe that, as with the prohibition on plastic bags [recently passed by the city council], eventually, this will become easy.”

While South Portland followed Portland’s lead on requiring a 5-cent per bag fee on the use of so-called single-use plastic grocery bags, officials across the river have said they are only waiting for the final working of South Portland’s pesticide ban, before moving to adopt it as their own.

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