South Portland pesticide ban gets initial OK

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council unanimously approved a first reading Monday of restrictions on the use of synthetic pesticides on public and private property. 

Councilors also narrowly approved final changes to the Fire Protection and Prevention ordinance, creating a buffer distance of 1,257 feet between public facilities and commercial liquefied petroleum gas operations that opponents believe could be challenged in court.

Councilors approved the first reading of the pesticides ban with some exceptions and caveats.

They asked city staffers, led by Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, to tweak selected portions of the amendments dealing with enforcement, expedite the waiver process, and establish a distance for how close to water pesticides can be applied.

“The purpose of this ordinance is to address the concerns posed by synthetic pesticides and to transition our use to organic products and practices,” Rosenbach said at the April 4 meeting. 

Exemptions listed in the ordinance include the application of synthetic pesticides for commercial agriculture, insect repellants, household rat and rodent controls, swimming pool supplies, and aerosol products. 

Synthetic pesticides are also permitted for control of invasive insects, for poisonous or disease-carrying plants or bugs, and on private golf courses. At the city’s municipal golf course, only tees and greens would be exempt.

Several constituents criticized the one-size-fits-all approach and questioned how the city will enforce the measure. 

“This is truly insane,” Al DiMillo, of Colchester Drive, told councilors. “How are you going to enforce me putting chemicals down on my lawn? We are a little speck on the Earth. What is this really going to help?”

Phil Roberts, owner of Broadway Gardens, said he tries to use organic products and practices as much as possible, but that there are also “newer, reduced-risk synthetic products” that mimic the organic ones and can still be used safely.

A total ban on synthetic pesticides, with few exceptions, doesn’t make sense if the goal is to convince people to use fewer pesticides, Roberts said.

“This is not what we should be promoting,” he said, adding that learning how to effectively and safely apply synthetic pesticides when necessary is “way more important than the origin of the pesticide.”

Charles McNutt, a member of the Conservation Commission, agreed and said, “Normally, I would be expected to support an ordinance such as this, (but) I cannot.

“I think there was a presumption that anything synthetic was bad and anything organic was good, and that’s just not the case,” he said.

Other licensed applicators suggested an integrated pest management approach would be a more appropriate approach for a new ordinance. 

Mayor Tom Blake said the measure will be a “giant step for our community,” and that, ultimately, “we’re doing this for our children.”

But Councilor Linda Cohen questioned whether the decision should be made by voters instead of the council.

“I believe that we all have a responsibility to Casco Bay and the bodies of water around us,” she said. “However, I’m not sure that all the citizens feel the impact of that responsibility the same way the council does, or the city does.”

Fire code

The fire code decision concluded several months of discussion over tighter regulations on commercial propane storage in the city, spurred by NGL Supply Terminal Co.’s now-withdrawn application to build a distribution depot at Rigby Rail Yard. 

The council vote was 4-3, with Blake and Councilors Patti Smith, Eben Rose and Brad Fox in the majority. Councilors Claude Morgan, Maxine Beecher and Cohen dissented. 

Attorney Russell Pierce, of Norman, Hanson & DeTroy, was largely responsible for redrafting what was originally referred to as a citizens’ ordinance. 

The new buffer distances and ordinance language will not prohibit propane depots, but rather provide “reasonable fire protection measures” to ensure, among other things, that ample distance separate those facilities from “public infrastructure,” according to the ordinance.

Public infrastructure listed in the ordinance includes schools, government buildings, places of worship, court houses, grocery stores, hospitals, and homes for the elderly, people with disabilities or veterans. 

The threat of a lawsuit over the ordinance has been looming since the beginning. Critics claim that because, for example, the new buffer zone would have prohibited NGL from building its depot in the northern end of Pan Am Railways’ Rigby Rail Yard, the ordinance would effectively be interfering with federally regulated railroad operations.

Cohen said she supported a competing, city staff-drafted ordinance that did not preempt federal law, and would have reduced the city’s chances of being sued by PanAm.

“I can’t see putting out there another ordinance that raises a red flag in front of someone and says, ‘Come on (and) sue us,'” she said. “I know we have to think about the health, safety and welfare of our residents, (but) I think we also have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers.”

Rose said the city could be “sued just about any time for anything. Yes, we have a fiduciary responsibility, but really our main mission is to protect our health and safety however we can.”

Blake said that while passage of the ordinance was very important and the path traveled by councilors and staff to get to there was “troubled,” the final product is “going to do the job to protect our citizens.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.