A bill that would give Maryland farmers a 10-year break from new state and local environmental regulations related to water quality if they agree to take part in a state program to reduce nutrient and sediment discharges into the water was heard Tuesday before a House committee.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles, has cleared the Senate and has the support of Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Del. Andrew A. Serafini, chairman of the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, also supports the bill.
“We have people that are doing it right ... so to give them a 10-year recognition ... is great. It also gives them time ...” said Serafini, R-Washington.
Alison Prost, state executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which supports the bill, said the program is voluntary, and for 10 years, farmers “will have flexibility and will not have to comply with any new laws that come on board.”
According to the foundation, the bill would reduce pollution from farms sooner because those who join the voluntary program would be subject to rules that are stricter than current regulations.
The bill also has the support of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The bill specifies that farmers who take part in the program will be required to take part in a state inspection “at least once every three years.”
Environmental groups, including the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Naturalist Society, oppose the bill.
They contend that a 10-year reprieve for farmers from new state and local rules enacted after they join the program would harm efforts to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay and would place an unfair burden on farms that do not take part in the program and municipalities.
Roy Hoagland, who spoke on behalf of the Audubon Naturalist Society at the committee meeting, said the bill was short on specifics about what exactly the requirements for farmers would be.
“The bill as is crafted is very incomplete,” he said.
Del. Herbert H. McMillan, R-Anne Arundel, said at the hearing that small-business owners or homeowners get no similar protection in the bill.
According to a news release, McMillan is in favor of a “summer study” of the bill, which he said is moving too fast without adequate scrutiny.