SOUTH PORTLAND — The city made history Wednesday night by becoming the largest community in Maine to enact a ban on pesticides.
The City Council also voted unanimously to allow interim City Manager Don Gerrish to begin negotiations for a power purchase agreement with ReVision Energy for a large solar array project the city intends to construct on its capped landfill.
The council voted 6-1 night to enact the pesticide ordinance, which bans most synthetic pesticides and allows most organics.
But consequences for violators won’t be punitive; instead, violations will be corrected through educational outreach – an aspect that some said weakens the ordinance.
The ban will be phased in over three years. It would take effect for city property May 1, 2017, expand to the general public May 1, 2018, and apply to the municipal golf course and the privately owned Sable Oaks Golf Club starting May 1, 2019.
Councilor Eben Rose called the ordinance “a great accomplishment,” and said it will create an “incredible educational opportunity.”
The ban would prohibit all turf, landscape and outdoor pest management pesticides, except those listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “allowed substances.”
It would also allow chemicals classified as “minimum risk” by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, according to an August memo from Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach.
A waiver process will be available for residents and business owners who must apply a pesticide that isn’t allowed under the ordinance. But waivers will only be granted for “situations that pose a threat to public health and safety, or for the control of invasive species that pose a threat to the environment,” according to Rosenbach’s memo.
The initial proposal included fines ranging from from $200 to $1,000, but the final ordinance language only includes educational outreach as a response to violators.
“We can’t enforce this ordinance, and we don’t intend to enforce this ordinance,” said Councilor Linda Cohen, who cast the only vote against the measure at the Sept. 7 meeting.
Cohen said while residents who have been engaged in the process understand the ordinance and will obey it, “I think our community (as a whole) is not as engaged as the people in this room are, (and) I think there’s a whole bunch of other people … that aren’t going to get this education as well as we want them to.”
Unlike the 5-cent city fee for single-use shopping bags and the ban on polystyrene, which was passed by the council last September and went into effect in March, this ordinance does not have a “mechanism” for enforcement, Cohen said.
“I want to keep you all safe,” Cohen said, “But I can’t, in good faith, support an ordinance that we, in good faith, can’t enforce.”
Cohen said the new ordinance will have the same effect as a “strongly worded resolution.”
“The fact is, they can still (use pesticides), and we’re not going to stop them,” she said.
Jim Cohen, a Portland attorney who has advocated for the city to take an approach that allows synthetic and organic pesticides, told councilors the new ordinance will lull residents into a “false sense of security.”
“If the goal is to educate residents about using fewer pesticides and choosing the least toxic material possible, then pass an ordinance that focuses on doing that,” he said.
Supporters of the ban, including members of the group Protect South Portland, who proposed that the council pass the measure more than a year ago, said they were grateful for the councilors’ decision.
Andy Jones said the ordinance is a “major victory for public health and for Casco Bay.”
Rachel Berger said passage of the ordinance is proof that “it’s the grassroots that (are) going to make a difference. Thank you very much for all the support you’ve given us.”
Councilor Claude Morgan said the direction is “clearly where the city wants to go, and the council is prepared to lead it in that direction.”
“This is somewhat of a historical moment,” he said. “It’s our moment.”
The solar energy project, which is a collaboration with Portland, will bring each city a 3,000-panel array. In South Portland, the array will be on the 35-acre capped landfill, adjacent to the new Municipal Services facility off Highland Avenue.
The city’s array is expected to generate 1.2 million kilowatt hours of renewable energy each year, start generating revenue in its seventh year, and pay for itself in the 11th year. Throughout the life of the project, the city is expected to save more than $3 million, Rosenbach, the sustainability coordinator, said in August.
Steve Henchman, marketing director for ReVision, said Wednesday that the business is “very eager to work collaboratively with the two cities and get final legal language in place so that we can begin the final permitting process.”
Once negotiations and permitting are complete, construction will begin.
“Beating the winter is probably not likely,” Henchman said, “but we would give it a shot.”
The project will come back before the council for a second reading after an agreement has been finalized.