Voters Defeat Pesticide, Herbicide Petitions; $45.7 Million Operating Budget OK’d

by William F. Galvin
Town Administrator Joseph Powers and Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh discuss an issue during the annual town meeting on Monday. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO Town Administrator Joseph Powers and Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh discuss an issue during the annual town meeting on Monday. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – Petitioned articles seeking to protect the environment were defeated by voters on the opening night of the annual town meeting on Monday.

Articles seeking to petition the state legislature to allow for local regulation of pesticides and banning the use of herbicides were defeated, along with with an article seeking to preserve trees during property development.

It was an emotionally charged session as many voters supported the need to reduce and ban pesticide and fertilizer applications to protect human health and the environment. Others questioned the procedural route of the petitions while arguing that application education is the proper tool for protecting the environment.

The three petitions were submitted by Patrick Otton. Speaking to the pesticide petition, he said the state legislature and the select board would have control of the language in a pesticide reduction bylaw.

“This is about health,” he said. “Your health, my health, animal health, nature’s health, keeping Harwich healthy. Human activity, our human actions, are impacting the place where we live. Let’s take care of it.”

Farmer Leo Cakounes challenged language in the proposal and took issue with the use of the word “exceptions” for commercial and agricultural use. Cakounes offered a motion to amend the language, using the term “exemptions.” The amendment was approved.

Mary Albis expressed concern for the “drift” of chemicals during applications. She spoke of a neighbor who has a company administer pesticides on his property. She said there are 15 to 17 applications a year from April to November. Hours later, Albis said, she can smell the chemicals in her house, and three days later she can still smell them in her yard. She questioned how many properties in Harwich receive chemical sprays.

“I seriously have concerns for my family’s health,” said Albis. “We don’t go far enough to protect our sensitive community.”

Elaine Dickinson told a story about her brother, a longtime gardener who never heard of organics, and who worked with pesticides in his garden. She said he died of Parkinson’s disease, but beforehand he did research and came to the conclusion that the disease was the result of those toxins.

Cakounes questioned the process used in developing the proposal. He said no public hearings were held by the health board or other town committee. “It’s circumventing the process,” he said of public involvement.

Select Board Chair Julie Kavanagh said even if every town on the Cape got rid of pesticides, nothing would change unless the chemicals are prohibited by the state because people could go over the bridge to buy it. The select board did not have discussions on the proposal and it has not been properly vetted, she added.

“You’re putting every little word, T’s crossed and I’s dotted, before our health,” said Laurie Moore.

Voters turned down the pesticide reduction proposal.

It was the same result for the herbicide article.

“Water is what brings people here and makes us want to stay in this special place of ours,” said Otton. “Water is our most valuable environmental resource and economic asset. It directly, indirectly affects every resident, property owner, visitor and business in Harwich. Water is our lifeblood and it is our responsibility to keep it healthy and protect what we love.”

Landscaper Tom Birch, who said he is a former organic applicator, said the town does not have the staff to oversee the regulations and that is why the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources should remain in charge of herbicides. He also agreed with Cakounes that a process should be followed in establishing local bylaws.

Planning Board Chair Duncan Berry said while he agrees with the proposal, the bylaw had not been fully vetted.

Rebecca Burrill said the town is not voting on a bylaw but on a directive to the select board to seek special legislation giving the town the right to prohibit herbicide use, with exceptions for commercial agricultural and residential use of organic herbicides.

“Once home rule has been granted, that’s when the bylaw will be written,” said Burrill.

Cakounes agreed, but he also took issue with the use of organic fertilizers. Cakounes said he is a certified organic applicator and his cranberry bogs are organic, but he cautioned against over-fertilizing.

“Home gardeners are notorious for over-fertilizing,” Cakounes said. “The best management plan is education.”

“I’m in agreement with all Patrick (Otton) put before us and I’m also in agreement with Leo (Cakounes) on procedures,” said Bob Weiser, adding that the town has to figure out how to move forward with the select board and state.

Three Girl Scouts wanted to address town meeting on the pesticide, herbicide and tree preservation articles. Teagan Lebidevitch, a seventh grader at Monomoy Regional Middle School, spoke to the need to protect trees. Voters denied a second Girl Scout the opportunity to speak on the pesticide article.

Cherian Armstrong, career education coordinator at Monomoy Regional High School, took strong exception to that decision.Town meeting teaches civic responsibility, she said.

“We’re not doing that tonight,” Armstrong said. “It is shameful to me to not allow our future voters who are trying to participate in government to speak. We should embrace these students, their courage, opinions and their point of view, and most importantly the exercise of their civic duty.”

Following Armstrong’s statement, Lillian Williams, another seventh grade Girl Scout was allowed to speak on the need to prohibit herbicides. She said she was concerned about ponds and embayments being impacted by algae blooms and fish kills.

The proposed tree preservation bylaw was also defeated. Discussions began with an amendment by Cakounes to exempt agricultural operations from the provisions. The amendment was approved. Cakounes also wanted to know if the proposal also went through the proper procedural process. Provisions in the article establish oversight by the town planner. The planning board has not had any discussion on the matter, said Berry.

David Plunkett called the proposal overreach. He related a story of Eastward Homes doing work at the Winstead property, digging out trees and taking them to another location to be replanted. Gary Conroy said there were a lot of unanswered questions in one of Otton’s forums on the proposal.

The petitioned article asking voters if they want a swimming pool was also defeated. Otton said the resolution sought an expression of interest, and he made it clear a study would be conducted answering the necessary questions, should there be voter support.

“Pools take a lot of chemical cleaning,” Alan Hall said, reflecting the pesticide and herbicide discussions.

Former selectman Linda Cebula said she did not support the resolution. It would cost the town a lot of money for lifeguards, chemicals and electricity, she said, recommending instead getting organizations together with an interest in establishing a regional pool.

Otten said there is a lot of interest from organizations in surrounding towns.

Former selectman Ed McManus said it would be good to have a pool, but it should not be something Harwich takes on by itself but rather the work of a private nonprofit. He added that the Cape Cod YMCA has been looking to locate facilities in the Mid to Lower Cape area. The swimming pool resolution was defeated by a 166-134 vote.

Town meeting approved an annual operating budget of $45,732,309 on Monday night with very little discussion. A difference of opinion between the select board and the finance committee over transferring $75,000 from the fire department overtime budget to the finance committee reserved funds was not pursued. Finance Committee Chair Peter Hughes said his committee agreed to fight for additional reserve funds in next year’s budget.

Harwich’s $29,876,982 share of the Monomoy Regional School District budget was approved without discussion. The $2,204,820 Cape Cod Regional Technical High School budget was also approved without debate. Voters approved a $2.5 million siding renovation project for the middle school. Chatham and Harwich will share that expense, which will be folded into the annual school budget. It will also require approval in a debt exclusion ballot question vote in both communities.

Voters also approved 12 Community Preservation Act funded articles totaling $1,765,200. In all, voters on Monday night disposed of 36 articles.