SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council Tuesday rejected a request from five oil companies to delay implementation of the city’s pesticide ordinance, which starting next month will restrict the use of synthetic pesticides.
The ordinance was adopted in September 2016 and will be fully enforceable city-wide May 1.
Councilors also heard from a resident who wants the zoning ordinance amended to allow farm animals in some areas.
Five petroleum companies, including Sprague, Portland Pipeline, and Gulf Oil, asked the council for a waiver to use synthetic chemicals until organic products can be proven to be as effective.
Vegetation and flammable materials must be kept away from their tanks, they said, and have been routinely cleared using synthetic chemicals that are not allowed under the ordinance.
Representatives from the companies said they are caught in the middle because many organic alternatives cannot be used because the nitrogen in the products cannot be allowed to flow into the Fore River and other watersheds as stormwater discharge.
The labor to manually remove vegetation would add extra costs, and mowers powered by gasoline and electricity are not allowed near the tanks for safety reasons.
Councilors and those speaking during public comment said the companies should have approached the city before the eve of the ordinance’s enactment.
The companies first approached Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach to seek a waiver, and she suggested they go to the council to seek permission because of the nature of the request. She told councilors the companies were not attempting to overstep the waiver process that is part of the ordinance.
Ann Morrill, chairwoman of the Pest Management Advisory Committee, said the tanks are situated close to schools and bodies of water, and the ordinance was enacted to protect those resources and public health. She said the request to the council was dismissive of the process and the work done by many people to develop and enact the ordinance.
Councilors said they wanted to see a good-faith effort by the companies, which can seek a waiver if there are issues with the effectiveness of organic products.
Councilor Claude Morgan said the conversation was premature. “We are all making sacrifices,” Morgan said. “Yours is not the only hardship.”
Councilor Kate Lewis made a connection between pesticide use and incidents of learning disabilities in children.
She said if the companies must pay more money for labor, it is still not comparable to the millions of dollars the city is paying for special education, with 20 percent of students in the district requiring extra academic assistance.
Lewis said learning disabilities can be linked to toxins found in pesticides and she needs more compelling evidence from the companies to consider a waiver.
“It doesn’t hold weight for me,” she said.
Jean Geslin of Highland Avenue told the council he wants to keep two pet goats at his home, and asked the City Council to consider an amendment to a zoning ordinance that restricts farm animals in residential neighborhoods.
Councilors expressed various perspectives on whether they would or would not support the amendment, but agreed to forward the proposal to the Planning Board for further review.
Geslin said urban agriculture is a local and global trend, and farming is a part of the city’s culture. Fifty years ago, there were several working farms in the city, he said, adding he would like to keep small goats as pets and for the enjoyment of his family.
Three former farm properties were grandfathered into the residential zone, and Mayor Linda Cohen said there has been development in the city, transforming farmland into residential areas. Although she enjoys driving by the horses and looking over the pastoral landscape on Highland Avenue, Cohen said South Portland is a city, and mixing farm animals and traffic and other considerations creates conflicts.
“There are very few undeveloped tracts of land left,” she said, adding she is unsure if she can support the amendment, but is willing to let it go to the Planning Board.
Morgan said the issue reminds him of the controversy more than 10 years ago over allowing hens in the city. He said the proposal was crafted to exclude roosters, and to place requirements on the type of housing for animals, which made the ventures more prohibitive. He said only about a dozen people applied for permits to keep poultry, but said the scale of this amendment does make this proposal a little different.
Geslin’s neighbor, Stan Jordan, spoke against the proposal, saying he fears his property value will decrease if farm animals are kept near his land, and said if Geslin wanted to keep animals, he should do so in a rural area. He also said he is concerned animals would cause noise and odor, and attract predators to the neighborhood.
Geslin said the benefits of keeping farm animals in residential areas include producing local food in a humane way, and community building that brings people together. Some animals also have a positive environmental impact by encouraging reduced pesticide because sheep or goats can help control vegetation.
Geslin said permits should be issued to keep animals, the housing of the animals should be at least 20 feet from the property line, and there would have to be a limit on the number of larger animals kept.
Geslin suggested a minimum lot size of 40,000 square feet, with a 10,000-foot addition for larger animals, such as cattle and horses.
In the residential A zone areas, including Meetinghouse Hill and Loveitt’s Field neighborhoods, there are 106 lots that meet those parameters, Geslin said and City Planning Director Tex Haeuser confirmed.
The proposed amendment will come back to the council following Planning Board review.
Sprague Oil representative Rolf Westphal argues at the April 10 South Portland City Council Meeting for a waiver from the pesticide ordinance that goes into effect May 1.