A burden of a ban

State of the Industry Report - 2016 State of the Industry Report

A moratorium on pesticides in one Maryland county is putting the industry on watch.

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October 21, 2016
Kate Spirgen
© Matt Collins

Lawn and landscape professionals in Montgomery County, Maryland, will soon be losing an important tool in the tool box. Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, all cosmetic pesticides will be banned in the county with some exceptions for athletic fields, golf courses and invasive species treatments.

Mowing & More in Chevy Chase, Maryland, services about 450 residential clients in the county, about 150 of whom receive lawn care applications. Chad Stern, manager, says his company will continue to do the best it can, but he knows that the quality of his customers’ lawns will suffer if the ban goes into effect.

“I guess I’m kind of waiting to see what happens as far as this legislation actually being enforced. I’m kind of keeping my fingers crossed for perhaps some last-minute modification to this that wouldn’t make it into such a cumbersome and heavy-handed bill,” he says.

There are no enforcement provisions in the ordinance, which is leaving many to wonder what will happen to those who don’t abide by the new law.

“I have heard that applicators are concerned because it was never the county’s intention to enforce this,” says Karen Reardon, vice president of public affairs for Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment. “And the Department of Environmental Protection in the county has told us they will not be enforcing it because the law is silent on enforcement.”

Current effects.

Brandon Sheppard, owner of a Weed Man franchise in Maryland, says Montgomery County was a big part of his expansion plan until the pesticide ban was passed.

He currently services areas west, east and south of Montgomery, and the size of the county plus the affluent demographic made it attractive. But those plans were scrapped when the ban was passed.

When the ordinance was first introduced, Stern alerted his customers via email, and if the ban goes into effect in 2018, he’ll do his best to explain the situation to them. He also plans to include the information on the yearly renewals he sends his customers.

“If there are clients who are dissatisfied with the lawn care service, then I would explain to them the situation and how our hands are tied because we can’t use herbicides, and we can stop that part of the service and then continue with other services,” he says.

He says his company has been asked to stop using herbicides by several clients in the past who then called Mowing & More to complain about weeds. “It’s kind of like there’s a disconnect between us not being able to use herbicides and there being weeds in the lawn,” he says.

Potential impact.

Sheppard has seen the effects of bans like this and says the impact is “catastrophic.” He and his family ran a lawn care company in Tillsonburg, Ontario, before joining Weed Man and although they sold the business before the ban took effect, he saw the impacts it had.

“Many of the offices in Toronto have yet to recover their sales that were lost after that,” he says. “And we’re going more than 15 years out since they passed the bill and they still can’t make the sales dollars back from it.”

“Over the years, I’ve realized that if you just sit back, then there’s always an abundance of people who have great ideas that could be harmful to your company and unless you’re actively involved in the regulatory process, then your business will just kind of get steamrolled.” Chad Stern, Mowing & More

He says that the bans being proposed in the U.S. very closely mirror those that have been passed in Canada and expects similar results in Montgomery County. The problem, he says, is that LCOs and landscapers don’t have the ability to achieve the same results they once did, but customers’ expectations don’t change.

“Many of the products that are allowed for weed control and pest control are just simply not very effective and so you have increased cost of the material, reduced effectiveness and a massive jump in the labor required to deliver the service because of the number of reapplications you have to do with a less comparable product,” Sheppard says.

What happens next.

Although there are state laws regarding the safe use of pesticides, Maryland is one of seven states that does not have preemption laws. This means that local ordinances, like the pesticide ban, can override state laws. The others are Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Utah and Vermont. A recent ban in South Portland, Maine, and a movement to spread the ban to the city of Portland, has many in the industry keeping watch on the issue. The National Association of Landscape Professionals is still trying to assess the impact and look at the options available. Both NALP and RISE have said that taking the issue to court is on the table.

“I think any state that does not have pesticide preemption – they should be cognizant and vigilant about this. We’re monitoring those states in particular,” says NALP Vice President of Governmental Affairs Paul Mendelsohn.

He says one of the key steps is getting a better handle on the business and practice impacts, which have been difficult to monitor so far. “We’re not really hearing of members who have clients who have called them up and said, ‘We’re not going to have you providing service any longer,’” he says.

Some say that the ban could spread quickly, while others say that only those in states without preemption need to be concerned. But Sheppard says everyone should be ready. “I think anybody who thinks it’s not going to happen is kidding themselves,” he says.

What you can do.

Industry professionals say the issue is that anti-pesticide groups are only telling their side of the story, and while there is scientific research supporting responsible pesticide use, it needs to get into the right hands.

“For every study that they cite, we can also cite research that was done that finds the opposite,” Mendelsohn says. “The jury on this is very much out and there’s a lack of consensus in the scientific community about the impact, so we’re trying to make sure that when communities make decisions, they’re well informed."

Sheppard stresses the importance of putting a face on the industry and showing those in government the benefits of what landscapers do in terms of public health.

“The argument that is always made against it is health and safety but we’re the ones protecting the public from the very real dangers of things like Lyme disease, West Nile and now Zika,” he says. “I’ve had Lyme disease. As a relatively, young, fit guy, it was like getting thrown down a flight of stairs with a bag of hammers. Those are very real, tangible risks and we’re often confronted by groups that oppose us with risks that are essentially academic. They’re hypothetical and theoretical.”

In Montgomery County, Stern has gotten involved in County Council hearings during the debate and agrees that industry voices need to be heard.

“Over the years, I’ve realized that if you just sit back, then there’s always an abundance of people who have great ideas that could be harmful to your company and unless you’re actively involved in the regulatory process, then your business will just kind of get steamrolled,” he says.