Harpswell pesticide ban may not be ready for March vote

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HARPSWELL — A vote on a pesticide ban may be pushed off until next year, as proponents of the measure scramble to change language in the proposed ordinance ahead of Town Meeting in March.

“Since the primary thing about a good use of pesticides is how it is used, it would seem like the best thing to do is the education first, and put the pesticide ordinance off until next year,” Planning board member Burr Taylor said at a meeting Wednesday.

Taylor’s remarks followed a presentation by Henry Jennings, executive director of the Maine Board of Pesticide Control, who noted possible legal complications with the town’s proposed ordinance.

Because the board takes a neutral stance on town ordinances, Jennings said he could not offer guidance for ordinance drafters.

The ordinance, proposed and drafted by the Conservation Commission, would prohibit the use of any pesticides within town limits, with the aim of protecting the health of residents and Harpswell’s marine environment and groundwater.

A number of exceptions, including water treatment and indoor pesticide use, are included. The ban would not extend to commercial agriculture, bug repellent, swimming pool supplies, and paint products, among others.

But, Jennings noted, the ordinance also makes a reference to “restricted” pesticides, which could have a regulatory connotation drafters didn’t intend. Under federal law, restricted pesticides are those that only licensed applicators can use, he said.

Other aspects of the ordinance, like its definition of “pest,” could also lead to complications, Jennings told the board.

In response to questions from board members, Jennings said pesticides are harmful to marine organisms, but there is little evidence to support the contention they have widespread impact on the marine ecosystem.

The dilution power of the ocean is so intense that water-soluble substances quickly dissipate, he said, although other materials could remain in sediment.

The MBPC is currently testing 20 intertidal sites around the state to determine possible pesticide impact, he told the board, but so far results from other parts of the country have been inconclusive.

“If you’re going to ask me what’s my gut on this, I’d say there’s no science out there right that is a smoking gun, but that’s why we’re looking at it,” Jennings said.

There are 20 communities in Maine that have pesticide-control ordinances in place, but very few are as comprehensive as Harpswell’s proposed outright prohibition.

Jeff Gillis, owner of WellTree, a Brunswick-based tree-care company that occasionally uses pesticides, said outside the meeting that the ordinance should be revised for clarity.

“I understand the spirit of what they’re trying to accomplish,” Gillis said, “but there are a lot of details to work out.”

Commission Chairwoman Mary Ann Nahf acknowledged that the draft ordinance needs some work before it is ready to be presented to voters.

“Our attempt with this was to come up with a workable way (to ban pesticides),” Nahf said, “but I guess we’re still kind of groping right now.”

Town Planner Carol Eyerman said the draft ordinance should be revised by the Conservation Commission before coming back to the Planning board. The document could be ready for a public hearing sometime in February, she said.

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @PeteL_McGuire.