Like little flags on a freshly treated lawn, concerns about a proposed pesticide ban in South Portland are cropping up across southern Maine and beyond, even though supporters and opponents say such a law would be difficult if not impossible to enforce.

The proposed ordinance would prohibit the use of synthetic lawn-and-garden pesticides and herbicides on private as well as city-owned property. Retailers could still sell the targeted products, including glyphosate-based Round-Up, neonicotinoids and weed-and-feed applications. And residents could still buy them.

But only pesticides allowed in organic farming or exempted from federal regulation could be used within city limits. The ban would exempt commercial agriculture and playing surfaces at local golf courses, and it would allow waivers for public health, safety and environmental threats, such as mosquitoes, poison ivy and invasive tree insects.

Activists on both sides of the issue say South Portland’s effort could be copied by other communities across Maine and the nation. Portland officials have announced plans to follow South Portland’s lead if it succeeds. Whether the ban would cause a proliferation of weeds or wildflowers is up for debate.

Supporters say South Portland’s ordinance would be the most far-reaching and environmentally progressive law of its kind in the nation, following a similar measure passed last year in Ogunquit and the Healthy Lawns Act that’s being rolled out in Montgomery County, Maryland. Late last week, the Maryland Legislature also passed a bill, now awaiting the governor’s signature, that would specifically ban the retail sale and homeowners’ use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to bee population declines. Commercial uses would still be permitted.

Cathy Chapman, a master gardener and coordinator of the group backing the South Portland pesticides ban, says "it's the wave of the future for a healthy and sustainable world."

Cathy Chapman, a master gardener and coordinator of the group backing the South Portland pesticides ban, says “it’s the wave of the future for a healthy and sustainable world.”

But opponents say South Portland’s proposal would be largely unenforceable as written and liable to divide neighbors into warring camps of scofflaws and watchdogs. The strongest opposition is coming from the lawn and garden industry, members of which turned out in force last week to speak against the ban. The South Portland City Council gave it unanimous preliminary approval on a first reading. Amendments clarifying enforcement and waiver procedures are expected before the council takes a final vote in the weeks ahead.

Critics include Tom Estabrook, vice president of Estabrook’s garden center in Yarmouth. He’s president of the Independent Garden Centers of Maine and past president of the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association. His family has a seasonal operation in Kennebunk, near Ogunquit, where he witnessed how some residents responded during the first growing season of that town’s new ordinance.

Estabrook warned South Portland councilors that their actions could have implications far beyond their city and their intentions.

“If you put this ordinance in place, you’re gonna take pesticides and throw it underneath the rug,” Estabrook said at the lectern. “I have customers every day from Ogunquit that come in and buy (synthetic) pesticides, take them home and use them. There’s an ordinance in place, but it’s gonna happen.”

Councilors took the warning in stride, including Eben Rose, who emphasized the importance of education over enforcement and said he thought the “soft approach” would be most successful.

Councilor Patti Smith suggested that the city’s sustainability coordinator be allowed some “latitude” in enforcing the law, and noted that it sometimes “takes a village” to change long-accepted practices.

“Yes, of course there’ll be people who don’t obey,” Smith said. “That’s part of what happens. This isn’t an attempt to catch everyone. It’s about making a majority of people aware of what’s happening.”

She continued: “We’re looking to model good behavior, get people educated. I’m not as concerned about the enforcement because, honestly, I think we should enforce other things that are more important.”

EDUCATION OVER ENFORCEMENT

Public education is a significant part of the proposed ban, and one way that South Portland’s ordinance is more advanced than its predecessors. It calls for campaigns to disseminate information about pesticide regulations, organic pest management principles and proper pesticide application and storage. The campaigns would target residential and commercial property owners, employees of pesticide retailers and state-licensed pesticide applicators, who also would have to submit yearly reports on synthetic pesticide use.

The ban would be phased in over three years, applying to city property starting May 1, 2017, and broadening to private property on May 1, 2018. It would apply to the municipal South Portland Golf Course and the privately owned Sable Oaks Golf Club starting May 1, 2019.

Because golf courses require turf conditions that are more difficult and costly to maintain by organic methods, all playing surfaces would be exempt from the ban on the private course, while only tees and greens would be exempt on the municipal course.

Violators of the proposed ordinance would face escalating fines of $200, $500 and $1,000 per offense. The ordinance would be reviewed during the third year for possible revision, although some councilors would like revisions to be made as needed.

The ordinance would be administered and enforced by the city’s sustainability coordinator and overseen by a seven-member Pest Management Advisory Committee. The panel would include three residents and two licensed landscape professionals, at least one of whom would have organic land care experience.

The proposed ban says the police department and code enforcement officer “shall provide investigative assistance” to help the sustainability coordinator enforce the ban, but this idea has drawn considerable skepticism.

Estabrook says the state’s heroin crisis should be the focus of police attention and that homeowners shouldn’t be put in an untenable position of monitoring neighbors and tattling if they use banned pesticides.

But even with police assistance, Estabrook and others contend, the proposed ordinance would be largely unenforceable and potentially damaging to an industry that generates $77 billion in annual revenue and employs nearly 1 million people nationwide, according to IBIS World. Not to mention how it might affect homeowners who spend hundreds on annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees each year.

“I sell thousands and thousands of plants each year,” Estabrook said after the council meeting. “I’d hate to see the tools to care for those taken away.”

Estabrook’s two locations draw customers from Kittery to Augusta, he said, and they ought to be able to buy pesticides that have been deemed legal and safe, if used properly, by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Estabrook and others say South Portland’s proposed ordinance should promote integrated pest management, which allows both synthetic and organic measures that balance the economic, health and environmental impacts of pesticides and strive to minimize their use overall. Organic pest-control practices aren’t as effective as synthetic pesticides, they say, and sometimes result in using more pesticides in multiple applications.

“We don’t feel the council has quite all the information they need to make a good decision,” Estabrook said. “I do believe there will be a domino effect if we don’t get some happy medium between all or nothing. There are good points on both sides, but they’re creating an ordinance with one side in mind.”

EXPERIENCE IN OGUNQUIT

Scott Heyland is the code enforcement officer in Ogunquit, a seaside summer resort town with fewer than 1,000 permanent residents. He’s responsible for enforcing the town’s synthetic pesticide ban on town and private property, along with inspecting construction sites, reviewing building plans and issuing building permits.

Heyland said he found no violations during the first year of the pesticide ban. He did get a few calls from residents who thought neighbors were breaking the law, but each time he checked, the lawn care company involved said it had used organic applications and methods.

Heyland heard complaints from some residents and hotel owners who followed the law and “were not happy at all” with infestations of crab grass, grubs and red thread, which left brown patches in otherwise manicured lawns. He also issued a few verbal waivers for infestations such as poison ivy and Japanese knot weed or bamboo.

“The first year was more of a learning curve,” Heyland said. “This upcoming summer, we’ll see what happens. I don’t think it’s ever going to be like handing out tickets in a no-parking zone.”

Still, Heyland said, he wouldn’t doubt that some Ogunquit residents continued to treat their lawns with banned pesticides.

“That’s going to be hard to regulate anywhere,” he said. “That’s more of a self-policing thing. Most of the properties in Ogunquit have lawn care companies doing the work. South Portland may have more of an issue with people who do the work themselves.”

Heyland said he knows several residents who stopped using lawn care services, either because they weren’t getting the pesticide treatments they wanted or because organic treatments are much more expensive.

Paul Sevigny owns Mainely Grass, a York-based lawn fertilization company that treats up to 300 properties in Ogunquit. He absolutely believes some Ogunquit residents continued to use banned products last year, based on the unblemished, deep-green color of some lawns.

“Driving around town, you can tell who’s not organic,” Sevigny said.

Sevigny lost “a couple dozen” customers last summer, but it didn’t dent his bottom line, he said. Some didn’t like the results of all-organic treatments. Others couldn’t afford a 200 percent to 300 percent increase in their lawn care bills.

Despite the higher cost, the organic applications were less effective, at least during the first year, Sevigny said. He had more than 60 cases of turf loss due to grub infestation.

Sevigny said he usually practices integrated pest management, including tick and mosquito control, and he strives to operate an environmentally friendly business whether he’s treating lawns in Maine, New Hampshire or Massachusetts.

“I’m not a chemical provider, I’m a service provider,” Sevigny said. “It’s going to take longer than a year to figure out how this is really going to transpire in Ogunquit.”

HEALTHY SOIL, HEALTHY EARTH

Supporters of South Portland’s proposed ban say almost nothing is more important than getting chemicals out of the environment and building healthy soil that doesn’t need pesticides when managed with natural, organic methods. They see the ban’s potential impact from a global perspective, where pesticide-free food, open spaces and estuaries leading to Casco Bay are part of a larger ecosystem.

“It’s the wave of the future for a healthy and sustainable world,” said Cathy Chapman, a coordinator of Protect South Portland, a citizens group that’s promoting the ban. “I think our ordinance is comprehensive and reasonable, and it will be a model for the country.”

Chapman is a master gardener who has used organic methods since 1974 and tends to a wide variety of perennials, shrubs, berry bushes and fruit trees in her yard on Beaufort Street. She has never seen a tomato horn worm in her vegetable beds and she credits age-old practices – composting, crop rotation and proper watering – with keeping pests and disease at bay.

“When you have healthy plants, you don’t really get pests,” Chapman said. “If you create a healthy environment for the plants and you feed the soil, the plants will thrive. Soil is alive with organisms and insects, and when you spray it with pesticides and herbicides, you essentially kill all the good things in the soil.”

The ban’s supporters say local action is necessary because the EPA and state agencies aren’t doing enough. They point to a 2013 report from the federal Government Accountability Office that found the EPA had granted conditional approvals that pushed many pesticides to market without thorough review. It also found the EPA didn’t track toxicity data or product modifications after the fact. A GAO report last month found some improvements have been made, such as revised labeling requirements for impact on bees, but that federal oversight of pesticides is still significantly lacking.

Chapman acknowledged that it can take awhile to see positive results when making the shift from synthetic to organic gardening methods. And it takes work to rebuild healthy soil in a depleted lawn or garden. It’s not as simple as swapping one bag of weed killer for another, she said.

Successful organic gardening means choosing disease-resistant and indigenous plants whenever possible, planting them in the right place and caring for them properly, she said. Some people choose to replace lawn with easier-to-maintain perennial gardens. Often, once an organic ecosystem is established, it can be much less expensive to maintain.

As for the ban’s enforceability, Chapman compared it to other public health issues that are addressed with laws that aren’t necessarily subject to strict administration.

“It’s like littering,” she said. “Most people want to do the right thing, so they don’t litter. The use of pesticides is a public health issue. If you have little kids and your neighbor is spraying pesticides, hopefully having the ordinance will make it easier to say something.”

 


Comments are not available on this story.