ANNAPOLIS – Eastern Shore legislators said they ended this session of the General Assembly with a lot of funding they wanted and a lot of new farming regulations they didn’t.
A booming economy resulted in plenty of money for school construction and capital projects, including a drill academy in Wicomico County and $16.2 million toward a new state hospital center in Cambridge.
But lawmakers still had to accept controls on farm runoff aimed at preventing another outbreak of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida, which killed thousands of fish in lower Shore waterways last summer.
“Pfiesteria is huge,” said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, R- Somerset. He has said the costs of complying with the new regulations could be devastating to farmers and poultry companies operating on tight budgets.
“It’s just heads and shoulders above any other issue,” he said.
Del. Mary Roe Walkup, R-Kent, said the Shore delegation “spent easily two-thirds of the session” trying to limit the impact of runoff regulations on the Shore’s agricultural economy.
Del. Kenneth Schisler, R-Talbot, thinks they may have succeeded.
“Inasmuch as we kept very onerous legislation from passing, the Eastern Shore delegation won,” he said of a runoff-control bill that Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he will sign.
Under the plan, farmers using chicken manure and sewage sludge as fertilizer will have until 2002 to reduce the nitrogen that runs off into the state waterways. They will have until 2005 to reduce runoff of phosphorus, a more difficult nutrient to manage.
Farmers using commercial fertilizer, with its more predictable nutrient content, must start controlling both nitrogen and phosphorus by 2002.
The fines for farmers who refuse to comply were capped at $2,000 per year. The plan includes funds to help farmers and poultry companies carry out the plans.
“We certainly don’t want to speak negatively of that,” said Stoltzfus. “It’s appropriate.”
Del. Norman H. Conway, D-Wicomico, said the plan is “much more palatable than it was at the beginning” of the session.
“I’m not happy with it, but … you can swallow it better,” he said.
Stoltzfus welcomed the extra capital spending from overflowing state coffers but noted that agriculture is the key to the Shore’s economy.
“If we damage the poultry industry even slightly, there’s no way we can make up for that with public dollars,” he said. “Anything that jeopardizes the economy significantly has far more impact than any dollars that we can send back.”
The new regulations even led Sen. Richard Colburn, R- Dorchester, to propose a bill that would let Eastern Shore residents vote to secede from the rest of the state.
The bill failed, but he said further regulations on farmers could bring it back to life.
“If farmers take another hit … then there’ll be another secession bill,” Colburn said.
“As long as people are telling us what to do with our land in Annapolis,” he said, “then there’ll be a secession movement on the Eastern Shore.”