State odor tests cleared Maryland hemp farm
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — After a Baltimore County landscaper began growing industrial hemp on his property last summer, irritated community residents protested the crop’s pungent smell and claimed it was causing respiratory issues and other ailments. In response, two lawmakers filed bills in the state House last month seeking to restrict where hemp can be raised in Maryland.
But a state odor survey around the Lutherville-Timonium farm in the fall concluded the crop was not a nuisance to nearby homeowners, according to documents obtained by The Delmarva Farmer.
Air inspectors from the state Department of the Environment surveyed neighborhoods surrounding Vince Piccinini’s farm on Broadway Road on Oct. 30, said Jeff Fretwell, a department legislative assistant, in an e-mail to the office of Baltimore County Del. Dana Stein, on Nov. 1.
“Some slight odors were detected north and northwest of the farm, but they were mild, and neither inspector considered the odor to be strong enough to rise to the level of a nuisance,” Fretwell wrote. “Farming odors, especially in right-to-farm areas, can be difficult to resolve. The odors involved in this case are short-lived and the farmer is willing to talk with the community about his practices.”
The dispute has pitted a small band of upscale, suburban homeowners and their legislators against the state’s agricultural industry, which claims the bills could deal a fatal blow to the nascent hemp community and represent a troubling circumvention of Maryland’s right-to-farm law.
“We have to find a way of addressing the concerns of those lawmakers without destroying the industry,” said Kevin Atticks, whose company, Grow & Fortify, manages the Maryland Hemp Coalition.
An environment department spokesman declined last week a request to speak with Fretwell and said the state will continue to conduct periodic odor surveys at the farm. Piccinini is one of more than 60 Maryland farmers who began growing hemp last year for a state research program after the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp production.
When his first hemp crop began to mature last summer, residents claimed its smell overwhelmed the community. Due to their terpenes, hemp plants produce a heavy odor, often described as acrid or skunky, to repel pests and attract pollinators. The smell is similar to marijuana. Both are strains of cannabis sativa.
“They felt like they couldn’t sit outside. Their kids were not playing,” Hettleman told The Delmarva Farmer last month. “It just reeked.”
Frustrated residents inundated county officials and state representatives, who held several contentious public meetings in the summer and fall. Homeowners claimed the hemp caused coughing fits and respiratory issues. One man said he nearly lost his federal security clearance after repeatedly arriving to work smelling like hemp, Atticks said.
Jack Turnbull, an attorney who lives near the school, promised in October to sue Piccinini and the state if the farm wasn’t shut down. The farm carries “the stench of marijuana” during the growing season, threatening the property values of surrounding homes, Turnbull said in an Oct. 16 e-mail to Jim Drews, who oversees the state’s hemp program at the Department of Agriculture.
“My daughter had a birthday party of 90 kids two weeks ago encompassing 12 private and public schools in the area,” he wrote. “I stood in the circle as kids were picked up and dropped off and had to answer the same embarrassing question over and over of ‘what is that smell?’”
Sen. Shelly Hettleman and Del. Jon S. Cardin, both Democrats, filed their bills late last month. Hettleman’s legislation prohibits hemp production statewide on farms within 2 miles of a residential community of 10 or more homes. She filed the bill as a delegate before she was sworn into the District 11 Senate seat vacated by former Sen. Bobby Zirkin in December on Feb. 3.
Cardin’s legislation prohibits the agriculture department from issuing a hemp license to a farm within 25 feet of a property or properties with three or more individual residences. An exception would be made for growers who raise the crop in an approved indoor facility.
Both legislators have said they have no problem with the hemp industry but are responding to constituents’ demands. Three months before she filed her bill, Hettleman said in an e-mail to a constituent that she didn’t support a buffer restriction.
“I stated that I would not support a ban on hemp farms being within 2 miles of a residential area because there may be a strain of hemp farming that has no odor and would not be a nuisance — not solely because it’s an economic issue for the state,” she wrote in late October.
As of press time, Hettleman did not respond to e-mailed questions from The Delmarva Farmer.
She has said that her bill will likely affect less than 10 hemp farms in the state, though Atticks and other industry supporters said it could disintegrate the industry depending on how the bill’s language is interpreted.
The bills may also violate the state’s right-to-farm law and could expose other farming sectors in Maryland to additional regulation, said Paul Goeringer, an agricultural legal specialist with the University of Maryland Extension. Maryland’s right-to-farm law shields farmers from nuisance lawsuits, provided the operation has existed for at least a year. Although no one has sued the farm, the bills represent a similar threat, he said.
But there is little case law regarding the right-to-farm law in Maryland, Goeringer said.
“My interpretation could be 100 percent wrong,” he said. “We have no court decisions providing us guidance on how to interpret the law.”
Residents have chosen to fight the farm through legislators because they wouldn’t succeed in court, said Colby Ferguson, government relations director at the Maryland Farm Bureau.
“If they were to sue the hemp farmer because they don’t like the smell, it would go to court and be thrown out,” he said. “This is circumventing the right-to-farm law because they’re (pursuing) legislation which the right-to-farm law does not prevent.”
Atticks and Goeringer also said the bills, if passed, could open other farm sectors to new regulation.
“I could see it being a problem specifically within the poultry industry,” Goeringer said.
The Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., which represents producers across the Eastern Shore, hasn’t taken a position on the bills yet but is considering potential implications on the poultry industry, said James Fisher, a spokesman.
Hettleman may have directed her bill at farms statewide with the intention of negotiating a reduction in scope, said Atticks at a Feb. 3 hemp coalition meeting. No matter what, both bills may have difficulty surviving the legislature.
The budding hemp industry has several notable Democratic supporters, including Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo of Montgomery County, who said the legislature will need to address Baltimore County’s concerns without “doing irreparable damage to a budding industry that is exceptionally important.”
The state’s odor surveys will likely have significant bearing on how the bills are judged by legislators, he said.
“The bills in their current forms are just too damaging to the industry,” he said.