Grass clippings create brouhaha at Hurlock meeting

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Dorchester Banner/Susan M. Bautz
At the Sept. 28 Hurlock Town Council meeting Councilmen Earl Murphy, left and Charles Cephas, center, discuss a proposed ordinance to deal with grass clippings left in streets. Town attorney Robert Merriken, right, read the ordinance that was introduced by councilman Murphy.

HURLOCK — A seemingly benign ordinance involving the disposal of grass clippings created a brief brouhaha at the Sept. 28 Hurlock Town Council meeting. Attorney Robert Merriken drafted a proposed grass ordinance at the council’s request during the Sept. 14 meeting. The main issue was the disposal of grass in the streets that can travel into the town’s storm drain system. He noted the council also asked him to include a penalty section for violations. Mr. Merriken included suggested fines of $25 for the first violation and “not to exceed $100 for each municipal infraction.”

Councilman Earl Murphy introduced the ordinance which would be advertised and voted on in the next meeting. At that point Councilman Charles Cephas said he wanted to “make his position clear” and stated that more research should be done on the ordinance’s impact on citizens, particularly seniors. “If we blindly put fines on seniors it would be unfortunate.” He suggested not passing the ordinance until the “right protections are added.”

Mr. Murphy said he thought the ordinance was well-written. He presented research collected from several sources, including the U.S. Department of the Environment about the impact of grass clippings on waterways.

He noted the Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the country and runoff from grass clippings ends up in rivers and streams that feed the Bay. He explained that phosphorus is in “almost everything including animal waste, grass clippings, almost everything created.” Phosphorus contributes to algae blooms which rob water of oxygen and impact fish and wildlife.

Mr. Murphy felt that the enforcement of ordinances should be handled by the code enforcement officer and police officers. “I’m worried about the public safety as well.” He noted he had heard that someone had slipped on grass clippings in the road.

In addition, he read from a letter that could be sent to all citizens “to help them understand the ordinance and that there are repercussions.” It offers suggestions like, “turn your lawnmower the opposite direction because 90 percent of grass clippings is water and if you blow it into the yard it becomes nutrients for your own grass and saves you money because you don’t have to spend on fertilizer.”

He emphasized that spitting clippings into the road puts the burden on “someone else,” like the town, to clean up. He said to Councilman Cephas, “I think I’ve done my homework to present this ordinance tonight. If a citizen has to spend a little extra time cleaning up some grass instead of putting it in the road I think it’s their responsibility that comes with having a yard.”

Councilman Cephas thought Murphy’s research was faulty. He believes that the citizens in Hurlock have not been dumping grass into the town’s storm water system. “If you examine our system you would see more paper, sand, and other dirt than grass clippings”.

Councilman Cephas believes the impact of the ordinance would be harmful. He feels “It is asinine to keep making laws, and laws, and laws that are unnecessary” especially when the impact is severe. He first mentioned police officers. By using police to enforce the ordinance “officers on duty cannot do their other jobs.” The police officer’s job is not to check on people putting grass in the street, he added.

He noted fines should be limited and violators given fair warning before a fine is imposed. “You have to make sure that the impact on some of these citizens is not so severe that it causes undue hardship. People pay enough taxes. They don’t need more impact to their finances.” He particularly emphasized the effect on senior citizens and low-income families who pay to have their grass cut and “cannot remove grass that may blow into the streets by the grass cutter or an act of God.”

But Councilman Murphy persisted, saying according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ‘the phosphorus in runoff is one of the most troublesome pollutants and considered a major pollutant in our creeks, lakes, and streams.’

Council Cephas countered, saying “You’re naming several things and putting grass at the top of the list.”

“What I’m doing is answering a question doing research,” countered Mr. Murphy.
Rev. Cephas asked him to research how the ordinance would impact the community. “I think there should be more discussion on this and I don’t think it should pass tonight because we don’t have a full council.” Council members Bonnie Franz and Jerry Rhue were absent.

As the discussion continued to heat up, Mayor Joyce Spratt said that since the grass season is almost over she suggested sending a letter in the spring to all residents explaining the problem and asking for cooperation when the season begins. If people persist in spitting grass clippings into the streets, the ordinance can be introduced as legislation next year.

Mr. Murphy added, “If we introduce it now we can prepare to present it in the spring as an ordinance” with citizen awareness of the issue. The end result of the long discussion was to table introduction of the ordinance until the full council was present.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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