NORTHBOROUGH — Nigel MacClancy lives three quarters of a mile away from the Davidian Bros. Farm composting site on Green Street, but he's not immune to the smell.

"On some evenings it can be appalling," he told selectmen at a hearing last week. "I've had my daughter dropped home by friends and you hear them slamming the car doors, putting the windows up and saying, 'Oh my God, I'm out of here.' They just can't stand the smell when they get out of their car in our driveway."

Neighbors closer to the farm complain about respiratory issues, possible well water contamination and an increasing number of pests and animals on their properties.

However, Ed Davidian, one of the owners of the 250-acre farm, says the operation is well managed and many of the claims are unproven or false. The composting operation, which covers about seven to eight acres, is part of the farm's goal to become more sustainable, he said.

"We've been producing a nice product," he said. "We are using about 90 percent of the product in the fields to try to become more sustainable. We have cut down our pesticide use and our fertilizer use in doing so. We are getting nothing but static from the neighbors."

For the past three years, town officials have been inundated with complaints from more than 15 neighbors about odors, noise, air quality, flies, animals and truck traffic caused by the composting operation. The large-scale composting enterprise is permitted through the state's Department of Agricultural Resources (DAR), with no provisions for local oversight, according to town officials.

As part of the operation, vendors haul in "vegetative material" that comes from supermarkets, hospitals, schools, hotels and other sources — up to 60 tons a week (about six dump trucks), according to the farm's permit. In 2014, the state banned the disposal of commercial organic wastes of one ton or more per week, which prompted an increased demand for such large-scale, commercial composting sites. The materials are mixed with leaves and other yard waste, which is often trucked in by landscapers.

Through a proposed bill filed by state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, at the request of the town, officials hope the state will require agriculture composting to be regulated by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which would be subject to local zoning and land use regulations. Right now, farms are exempt from DEP and town land-use regulations for large-scale commercial composting.

The legislation is the town's last option after a very long diplomatic and advocacy effort to which there has been a lack of response from the state over the years, Town Administrator John Coderre said.

"Town officials continue to investigate and document numerous complaints and requests for information at considerable time and expense," Coderre wrote in a Sept. 8 memo to selectmen. "Complaints are forwarded to the DAR for review and appropriate action, resulting in little to no change, given the current regulatory framework. Despite various corrective measures being taken by Davidian Bros. Farm since the operations inception, complaints continue to be received."

The exemption allows agricultural composting to be permitted without public hearings, abutter notification and for local control of setbacks and buffers, he said at last week's selectmen meeting. At the meeting, selectmen unanimously voted to approve three pages of testimony to be read at public hearing on the bill at 11 a.m. Monday at the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Headquarters, 1 Rabbit Hill Road, Westborough.

"The primary purpose of local zoning and land use regulations is to segregate incompatible uses," the testimony reads. "A commercial composting facility is not a compatible use with a residential neighborhood absent appropriate conditions and oversight. Up until the Oct. 1, 2014 commercial food waste disposal ban, residents living next to or in vicinity of agricultural land had a reasonable expectation of what constitutes a farm-related activity. No one ever thought that included a solid waste facility."

Davidian, who is also the president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, disagrees.

"There is no solid waste at all," he said. "We are talking leaves, grass and vegetables and mixing them together - that is not solid waste by any means."

The operation

On Friday morning, Davidian looked on as a truck from E.L. Harvey dumped approximately six or seven tons of organic waste to be mixed with leaves already onsite. The load included watermelons, lettuce, corn, celery, cauliflower, peppers, eggplant, among other produce. A dumpster was nearby in case there is any loose trash.

"Those green bags that are coming out are compostable," he said. This happens three to six times a week.

The farm has rejected loads from vendors in the past because they contained too much garbage, he said.

"I'll stack it up to anyone who is doing composting. It is a very well managed site," Davidian said. "We have the odors and everything down to a very minimal amount. When we spin a pile, if it is volatile (potent smell) we zap it with another substance to minimize the odors. We do a lot of different things here that we didn't do three years ago."

The composting operation started under the direction of DEP, he said. Once mixed, the compost is placed in windrows for about a year before it's ready for the fields. 

Michael Davidian, who runs the composting operation, said the farm has reduced herbicides by half in the past two years. The compost is needed to replenish the nutrients in the soil.

"We've increased our yield," he said. "We had a great corn crop and we increased the overall soil health."

While the farm gets a tipping fee, they say it just about breaks even to maintain the operation. The product is used on the field, not sold.

"If our consumers demand sustainable agriculture we have to allow farmers to produce compost," Michael Davidian said. "Sustainable agriculture is what sells our products."

In a Jan. 11, 2016 email to Health Director Stephanie Bacon, Ed Davidian wrote that the state has no problem with the site.

"What we are doing is completely legal and the harassment by the neighbors needs to stop," he wrote. "You are not experts on compost. You do not have control of what we are doing or how we do it. We would appreciate it when you get a call you verify the problem exists before contacting anyone. We are growing tired of accusations that are simply false."


Unintended consequence?

Coderre says he's worked in town for 14 years and hasn't heard any significant complaints about farms, until the ban of commercial organic waste was enacted. Some in town see the complaints as an unintended consequence of the 2014 ban.

There are more than 50 registered farm-based composting sites across the state.

Officials say the problem isn't likely to go away because of increased demands of composting. He said a meeting was held with neighbors, state officials and the Davidians on Jan. 6, 2015. 

"The residents expressed concern that Department of Agricultural Resources cannot be an impartial party to the matter, as they exist solely to promote composting and farms," Coderre wrote in his memo.

Similar issues are popping up in Rutland and on Cape Cod. This is a statewide issue, Chandler said.

"Under the environmental protection rules, the town would at least have a say in this. The town has no say in it right now," she said. "That's not fair to the people that will abut the property and in this case some distance from the property." 

She said neighbors feel like they're getting a runaround by the agricultural department.

"They knew they were living next to a farm. They knew that from the beginning," Chandler said.  "But they are objecting to a number of things. They are objecting to 18-wheelers driving down very narrow country roads dropping off spoiled food that is there to be composted several times a week. They are objecting to the fact that the odor is so bad that they can't go outside."

Chandler said there are other ways to compost with less impact, such as anaerobic digestion.

"They can't even get out of their house," she said. "When you buy a house you think you are going to have maybe a deck, maybe a porch maybe they'd like to have a barbecue. They can't. The smells are terrible and they shift." 


 The Massachusetts Municipal Association is supporting the bill saying current regulations do not adequately protect citizens from nuisance and harm.

"We recommend that state officials closely review the treatment of farm-based commercial composting operations that import a substantial amount of materials from offsite and engage in operations similar to a commercial solid waste facility," a Nov. 3, 2016, letter reads. "At some level, these operations should not be exempt from the site assignment process or other rules administered by the Department of Environmental Protection."

'Strongly opposed'

The Farm Bureau, of which Davidian is president, sent a letter on Thursday to its members saying its leadership strongly opposes the legislation. And it's not just the Davidians, said Brad Mitchell, policy director with the bureau.

"This is agricultural as much as it can be," he said. "All this waste came from someplace and it's being used right here on the farm. It's a win-win for the commonwealth."

Mitchell said the Department of Agricultural Resources manages agricultural compost sites under an agreement with DEP. The agricultural department's composting program has been in existence for more than 20 years and has been very successful, according to the bureau.

"This bill appears to be filed in response to a single farm compost operation where neighbors have complained about odors and impacts on their view," the alert reads. "Both DAR and DEP have visited this farm on numerous occasions and have not found problems with the compost operation. Compost is an important farm input used to improve soil with organic matter and nutrients. The only cost-effective manner by which farmers can obtain sufficient quantities of compost is to bring organic matter onto their farms and create their own compost."

Jan Hudson, of 448 Green St., told selectmen about 10 families are so fed up they filed a civil lawsuit against the Davidians and are looking for more of a balance between the residents and the farm. 

"We all realized when we moved next to a farm that you're going to get manure on your tires. You're going to track it into the garage. It's going to smell. You're going to get crows, but no one expected to be next to anything like this," she said.  "We are just asking for a voice. And for that balance to be less weighted to a farmer's right as opposed to ours."

Bacon experienced the smell when visiting 448 Green St. after a complaint about trash.

"I could not smell compost odor along Green Street but the minute I drove down (a shared driveway at a lower elevation), the compost odor was rancid at times," she wrote in an email to DAR officials on April 11, 2016. "I feel the elevation (of the home), in combination with the compost piled right up to the property line, is a recipe for disaster."

Davidian said many steps have been taken at the farm to reduce the impact on neighbors, and he will continue to fight for his family's property rights.

"Farms by nature smell," Davidian said. "From time to time a farm is going to have an odor and when you live near a farm that is something you have to deal with."

Jonathan Phelps can be reached at 508-626-4338 or Follow him on Twitter @JPhelps_MW.