Northborough official calls for legislative solution as legal fees from ‘agricultural composting’ fights mount

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Town Administrator John Coderre testified before the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. (Screenshot/House Broadcast Services)

NORTHBOROUGH – Northborough Town Administrator John Coderre testified in front of a state legislative joint committee, Nov. 3, in support of a bill that would regulate agricultural composting programs. 

This bill has been one of Northborough’s legislative priorities for the past three years, he told the Board of Selectmen the following week.

It comes as the town has dealt with two sites that Coderre said have caused “significant concern and issues for neighbors” on and off for over a decade. 

Coderre said on Nov. 3 before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture that the operators of those sites weren’t actually composting materials on their properties. 

“In one example, we had, picture [it], five 18-wheeler loads full of cranberries just piled up, rotting,” Coderre said.

One of the operators ceased operations following litigation. 

The other, S.A. Farm on Whitney Street, required years of intervention and action by the Attorney General’s office and Department of Environmental Protection until a settlement was reached.

S.A.’s owner, Santo Anza, was previously convicted on charges that he operated an illegal dump. 

Northborough has ongoing litigation with Anza in Worcester Superior Court stemming from an injunction in 2018.

Coderre said Northborough has spent over $150,000 in legal fees alone on matters related to S.A Farm.

“The bottom line here is, trying to deal with these problems after the fact is very inefficient and very ineffective,” Coderre said.

Coderre said the town was asking for the ability to place “normal” enforcements, such as ones addressing noise and setbacks.

History of the bill

Coderre said this legislation passed the House, Senate and Conference Committee two years ago, only to be vetoed by Gov. Charlie Baker.

The legislation was submitted again last year, but it was tabled, Coderre said, as legislators prioritized critical matters relating to the pandemic.

The matter is back before the legislature again this year.

According to Coderre, large scale commercial composting operations have to go through land use and zoning approvals and regulations. 

“With the exception of if you’re a farm, you can bypass and you’re exempt from all of that,” Coderre told the selectmen.

This bill would change that by establishing an agricultural composting program to implement regulations and require compliance with local zoning, land use, conservation and health regulations.

In the letter he read to the joint committee on Nov. 3, Coderre said this legislative fix is “essential” to protect neighbors who live close to sites like the ones he mentioned in Northborough. 

Coderre said communities living in close proximity to these sites have been “unsuccessful” in previous attempts to reconcile related disruptions, such as “volatile” odors, illness, traffic and contamination concerns of resources like water, among other things. 

“Unfortunately, under the current regulatory structure, municipalities have little to no power to address these types of disruptions,” Coderre said. 

“The legislation is still needed because tomorrow any farm can engage in [a] large scale composting operation in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” Coderre continued. 

“The fact of the matter is, the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Health and town officials have no control.” 

Coderre told the selectmen, Nov. 8, that if the committee reports favorably, the bill would go to the full Legislature and then to the governor to possibly be signed into law.