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Administrative trial set to resolve controversy over mulch operation

HARRISBURG A controversial business that stockpiles mulch on preserved farmland in northwest Montgomery County faces an intensified battle as neighbors and local officials seek to halt the company's production in Douglass Township.

HARRISBURG A controversial business that stockpiles mulch on preserved farmland in northwest Montgomery County faces an intensified battle as neighbors and local officials seek to halt the company's production in Douglass Township.

A state board that reviews farmland issues voted Thursday to have a hearing officer conduct an administrative trial on Mountain Mulch Co.'s operations. Those operational activities "create an adverse impact on the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the township," the township alleges in a recently filed civil lawsuit.

"I'm grateful the state is taking a serious approach," neighbor Karen Keiser said after the vote by the state Agricultural Land Preservation Board. "It is a big issue. There is a lot of taxpayer money in easements."

"Hopefully it will be exposed for what it is and what a threat it is to farmland preservation," neighbor Nina Orner said of Mountain Mulch. She went to the Harrisburg meeting with Keiser and three other neighbors.

No representatives of Mountain Mulch attended the meeting. When reached Thursday by phone, the company's general manager, Frank Sharp, said the company was complying with all applicable laws, adding that the firm was "happy to go through the process" to prove that point.

Piles of mulch

Neighbors for months have complained of hulking mulch piles that rise almost 20 feet high since Mountain Mulch bought the 53.4-acre parcel from a tree nursery operator in April 2012.

The township's zoning board in May 2012 approved the company's application to operate a mulch business on a 7.5-acre swath. After those mulch piles caught fire Nov. 3, taking hours for fire companies to bring the blaze under control, the township took more aggressive steps to enforce the zoning board's conditions.

Douglass Township filed a complaint with County Court on Nov. 26, alleging Mountain Mulch was violating local, state, and federal laws, and the township went a step further by filing a petition seeking to bar the company from grinding up mulch until it enters compliance with all applicable laws.

The township reviewed aerial images of the mulch site and concluded the mulch piles were sitting on a 13-acre footprint - almost double the size of what the zoning board mandated. The township in its complaint and petition for a preliminary injunction also alleges Mountain Mulch "failed to develop an emergency fire plan in consultation with the [designated] fire official."

The cause of the Nov. 3 fire was "spontaneous combustion," an act of nature spawned by the mulch piles producing intense heat from within, according to the township's fire marshal.

On the day the fire erupted, The Inquirer published an article on Mountain Mulch in which neighbor Louis Farrell was quoted as saying, "The worst thing is having to get up in the morning and seeing this stinking mess. It looks like something in Dante's Inferno."

Farrell, who attended Thursday's meeting at the state Department of Agriculture's building, said afterward he estimates Mountain Mulch has $6 million worth of mulch stockpiled on the land. "They are using agricultural land for a commercial operation," he said. "This is not a mom-and-pop operation."

'To the end'

Douglass Township manager Pete Hiryak and the township's solicitor, Paul Bauer, attended the meeting in support of the residents.

"We're going to see this through to the end," Bauer said. "I could see this being a long process."

Any property enrolled in the state's permanent Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program is entitled to engage in enterprise with specific conditions.

An assistant solicitor for the Montgomery County Agricultural Land Preservation Board has drafted a "memorandum of understanding" plan that would allow Mountain Mulch to continue its core business but require it to use the rest of its property for other agricultural purposes.

The state board voted to appoint an outside attorney who will act as a judge and conduct an administrative trial reviewing the merits of that memorandum of understanding. No date was set, but officials said the state hearing could convene in February 2014.

The hearing officer in the case will ultimately present recommendations to the 17-member State Agricultural Land Preservation Board, which can implement the recommendations or reject the recommendations in favor of other action or no action.

The state hearing could be moot depending on what happens in the township's lawsuit against Mountain Mulch.

A one-hour conference has been scheduled for Jan. 14, 2014, between both parties before Judge Bernard A. Moore at the Montgomery County Courthouse.