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Needham selectmen will vote again whether to back pesticide ban

Posted by Evan Allen  May 3, 2012 01:09 PM

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The Needham Board of Selectmen will vote again Tuesday on whether to support a Town Meeting article that calls for the banning of pesticides on town-owned land in Needham, according to chairman Jerry Wasserman.

The board voted unanimously on April 24 not to support the article, which was submitted by citizens’ petition to the warrant for the upcoming Town Meeting, which begins on Monday.

The article has been significantly revised from the version that the board voted on, said Wasserman.

“I decided that we needed to do it when I saw the latest version, just to make sure that we were voting on what was actually being presented to Town Meeting,” he said.

The board, he said, will also probably vote on an updated version of the Citizens United warrant article, another citizens’ petition that calls on the town to lobby its state representatives to introduce an amendment to the Constitution to overturn a Supreme Court decision that gave corporations, unions and nonprofits the right to spend unlimited money in political campaigns.

The original pesticide article called for a ban on pesticides and herbicides, with an exception for outbreaks of stinging and biting insects. The new version includes an additional exception for mosquito-spraying, an issue that has concerned the Board of Health.

Wasserman said that while he could not predict the vote of the board, he thought that the changes to the article probably will not result in a different vote from the selectmen.

“There’s a concern on the board that it still ties the hands in some ways of the staff,” he said.

Needham’s current integrated pest management policy allows for the spraying of pesticides only “as a last resort, and only within specific guideline for least toxic selection and use.”

It limits pesticide use for aesthetic purposes, and it bans the use of pesticides on school grounds without an emergency waiver.

Edward Olsen, Superintendent of Parks and Forestry in Needham, said that the town uses pesticides very infrequently.

"The whole point of our integrated pest management policy is to try to be pesticide-free," said Olsen. "We try to be as organic as we can be with the ultimate goal being zero pesticides."

Still, he said, it's important to have pesticide use as an option.

"I think we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot try completely take away the right to use pesticides," he said. "The town has a very responsible policy."

Ellen Fine, a Needham resident who spearheaded the article, has advocated for a completely organic approach to pest control in town, saying that pesticides and herbicides can be harmful for people.

Fine said that pesticides she was exposed to in Waterville Valley, N.H., have made her sick. In Needham, she said, she was exposed to pesticides at the library that left her wheezing and ill last year.

“I think most people don’t understand how dangerous these chemicals are,” she said.

“We’re asking for organic land management. Then you know what you’re doing.”

Chip Osborne, Jr., a member of the board of directors of Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Beyond Pesticides, said that cities and towns across the country are adopting organic-based land management strategies. Osborne is also president of Osborne Organics, a national consulting and educational company that advocates organic land management.

“This isn’t just an isolated thing,” he said. “This issue is beginning to be addressed on a national level.”

The town of Marblehead, said Osborne, has been pesticide-free for 11 years. Osborne is the Chair of the Marblehead Recreation and Parks Commission.

“The feeling that you hear around town is, ‘We’re happy with these fields, we’re not suffering because it’s organic,’” he said.

The town has not had any issues with mosquito-borne illness outbreaks, he said, and the fields have about the same amount of weeds – two to three percent – as they did when they were treated with chemicals.

The town does have a provision that allows the use of chemicals in the event of a threat to human health, he said.

Switching to an organic land management plan, Osborne said, is just about cost-neutral at first. After five years, he said, it costs about 30% less than the traditional approach.

Wasserman said that switching to an organic land management system is something the town supports, but that this article simply may not be the way to do it.

“I believe it’s a worthy goal,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will take to get there.”

The Citizens United article calls for the overturning of the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The decision led to the growth of Super Political Action Committees, which have poured vast amounts of money into the presidential campaign this year.

On April 24, the board voted 3-2 to support the measure. The revised text of the article is not yet available, said Wasserman.

Evan Allen can be reached at

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