Proposed Bill Would Protect Local Laws From Being Overrun

Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick) said she would introduce legislation to protect statutes enacted by local governments at an Annapolis news conference held by LOCAL Maryland. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

Former Washington, D.C., resident Alan Cohen can’t own a brand new car. He can’t even ride in one. 

While living in the District, Cohen was poisoned by exposure to different pesticides used on lawns, leaving him with a disorder that causes his body to be sensitive to many chemicals. Now, chemicals used in new cars, colognes and other common commodities give him an adverse physical reaction.

“It has affected my life in many large and small ways,” he said.

Cohen has since moved to Takoma Park, where he became a member of Safe Grow Montgomery, a volunteer-based coalition in Montgomery County whose mission is to safeguard the environment and residents from chemicals in lawn pesticides.

“Federal and state laws are woefully inadequate in protecting local communities and its children, and pesticides can harm some communities more than others,” he said.

In 2015 Montgomery County passed the Healthy Lawns Act, barring the use of certain pesticides on local yards that the state says are permissible. A lawsuit levied by local homeowners, landscaping companies and pesticide manufacturers ensued, claiming that state regulations eclipsed the county’s ordinance in a phenomenon called preemption. Last year, the Maryland Court of Appeals stood with the county, maintaining the ban and presenting a win for local Maryland governments.

A number of advocates and organizations, including Cohen and Safe Grow Montgomery, joined LOCAL Maryland — a consortium of advocacy organizations interested in allowing local legislators to enact and maintain laws that benefit their constituents — at a news conference Friday to introduce their legislative priorities.

In attendance was Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), who announced that she will sponsor a bill to provide transparency in the process of determining whether state regulations override local laws, providing protection for statutes like the one advocated for by Safe Grow Montgomery.

This yet-to-be-introduced bill would secure that counties have no “implied preemption,” giving them assumed dominance in the law-making process for their jurisdictions unless explicitly specified in state legislation.
Young said her forthcoming proposal aims to give judges direction in how they determine which rules take precedent by having it stated directly in a bill’s language — allowing for transparency and an opportunity for stakeholders to have a hand in the legislative process.

 

A former Frederick City alderwoman, Young said she has a grasp of the repercussions that the imposition of state statutes can have at a local level.

“When we come to Annapolis, we need to balance the need to think as a state legislator and what’s good for the state with the fact that sometimes that may not be best for our local community,” she said. “What works well in Ocean City or Baltimore or the western part of the state may not make sense for Frederick.”

Preemption issues boil down to a matter of interpretation on the part of the judiciary. Frequently, counties and  municipalities will impose statutes unique to the needs of their communities that state law overrides and corporations will challenge in court — which is what happened with the Healthy Lawns Act. From there it’s up to judges to determine whose law comes out on top.

Over the next week or so it’s expected that co-sponsors will hop on to help usher the bill through. Maryland Association of Counties Executive Director Michael Sanderson said he’s hoping to get some legislators who’ve previously served in local government on board.

To Sanderson, this new policy would allow for a healthy debate about the importance of state uniformity vs. local policy and would rid the inconsistency that often comes with judicial interpretation — a process that the public doesn’t often see.

“Sometimes local governments are going to lose a fair fight,” he said at the Friday media event. “Going forward, if the General Assembly decides that a matter should be statewide for a particular reason, we have a public debate on it, and we’re willing to lose that fight.” 

“That’s what this legislation would bring: Clarity and consistency.”

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.