The Montgomery County Circuit Court overturned Bill 52-14, the Healthy Lawns Act, on Aug. 3. The law, enacted by a 6-3 vote of the Montgomery County Council in October 2015, was set to go into effect for private property on Jan. 1, 2018, prohibiting the use of certain registered pesticides.
In his ruling, Judge Terrence McGann said that the county law is preempted by Maryland state law. “By generally banning the use of registered pesticides, the ordinance prohibits and frustrates activity that is intended to be permitted by state law, which conflicts with and is thus preempted by state law,” he ruled. “The county’s ordinance flouts decades of state primacy in ensuring safe and proper pesticide use, undermines the state’s system of comprehensive and uniform product approval and regulation, and prohibits products and conduct that have been affirmatively approved and licensed by the state.”
Plaintiffs Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), seven county residents, six local businesses, and CropLife America were pleased with the court decision. RISE President Aaron Hobbs said, “Today’s decision is a win for resident and community choice. Pesticides purchased and applied by consumers and licensed professionals in the county help maintain healthy outdoor spaces for more than 1 million people who call the county home.”
Kentlands resident Alex Stavitsky-Zeineddin, founder of the Kentlands Community Foundation Go Green group and Safe Grow Montgomery spokesperson, was a strong advocate for the law. “We consider this a major setback and are saddened by the fact that thousands of Montgomery residents wanted the local Healthy Lawns Act to be enacted both in private and public property,” she said. “ Local jurisdictions should have the right to enact laws that their local constituents want, especially when it comes to protecting the health of local residents.”
Reaction from the Montgomery County Council came quickly after the ruling.
Bill sponsor George Leventhal, County Council member-at-large, said in a statement, “Studies have linked numerous chemicals found in lawn pesticides to cancer and other serious health conditions. The Council sits as the Board of Health, but the court has ruled that we are preempted from protecting our residents from this health threat. This sets a worrisome precedent for the ability of local governments to protect their residents on vital issues of health and safety.”
County Council Member Marc Elrich concurred. “Too many people believe that because a pesticide is allowed for use by the federal government and by the state, then it must be safe. Yet scientists, medical researchers and physicians advocate for great caution when using pesticides,” he wrote in a statement. “I continue to believe that the Council’s bill was a commonsense approach to reducing pesticide use, promoting organic lawn and field care and educating people about pesticides and alternatives.”
Noting that the county needs to protect the health of its citizens when federal and state regulations may not be strong enough, County Council President Roger Berliner said, “With federal safeguards in the areas of public health and environmental protection dwindling, I believe that it is more important than ever for county government to work to protect the health and safety of its residents and our environment. However, the court has now ruled that the Council’s legislation is preempted by the state’s regulatory regime that the court maintains is comprehensive.”
On Aug. 16, the Montgomery County Council directed the Office of the County Attorney to appeal the Montgomery County Circuit Court ruling. “It is important that the Council is allowed to protect our community from the threat posed by pesticides on private lawns,” Berliner said in a statement.
The Gaithersburg City Council decided not to opt-in to the county law while it was being challenged in the courts. Following the Aug. 3 court ruling, City Councilmember Robert Wu expressed disappointment, but noted steps the city has taken in the interim.
“In the meantime, the entire council supported taking steps to explore what we could to support more healthy/responsible pesticide use,” he wrote on his official Facebook page. “What we found was that the city already did not use harmful pesticides for routine use even in our parks and fields. However, we did use pesticides for non-routine applications. Since that time, the city has initiated a pilot program at three sites around the city and it is looking promising that we, as a city, can rid ourselves of harmful pesticide use in the near future.”