In 2017, Northborough, Massachusetts is experiencing a land-use conflict in the form of a large-scale agricultural composting operation that is upsetting the nearby community. Since 2014, the Davidian Bros. Farm has been engaged in large-scale composting. This composting operation has partially resulted from a 2014 Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) regulation that promotes food waste composting on large scales, the Commercial Food Waste Disposal Ban (Thompson, 2016). The farm uses large windrow compost heaps that some Northborough residents find visually imposing. The community members of Northborough have filed complaints with town officials, state legislators, and state agencies in regards to the composting operation. Additionally, some have complained of health problems they believe may be results of compost related pathogens or drinking water contamination. Due to this conflict, the Office of State Senator Harriette Chandler sponsored a study to better understand this situation and how stakeholders could work towards a resolution that could be beneficial for everyone involved.
In order to positively influence this situation, we formulated two related goals to guide our work. First, we aimed to appease the community’s concerns by presenting recommendations that all stakeholders could agree to. Second, we hoped to facilitate a lasting relationship between the Davidian Bros. Farm and its surrounding community in order to provide an example for other food waste recycling operations to follow.
We were able to make meaningful strides towards these aims by dividing our project into two phases.
Phase 1: Develop a Northborough Case Study
- Investigate the primary concerns of the surrounding community and perspectives on those concerns from experienced individuals outside of the situation.
- Investigate the extent to which compost practices and outside forces, such as weather influence neighbors’ complaints.
- Explore possible composting legislation and its impact on local communities and farms.
Phase 2: Case Study Analysis and Solution Development
- Identify cases with similar issues to the case study we have developed and comparatively analyze them against the Northborough case.
- Develop and present a creative proposed solution tailored to the situation in Northborough.
We accomplished these objectives using a variety of methods to gather, analyze, and present data. Specifically, we distributed surveys, facilitated two focus groups, and conducted interviews with neighbors, town officials, state legislators, state agents of regulatory bodies, composters, and others who have investigated the issue. We chose to speak with these groups in order to gain the perspectives of different points of view involved in or investigating the situation. We also researched documentation such as news articles, reporting documents to state agencies, regulations, and other written information in order to expand our understanding of the situation and gather as much data as possible.
In order to investigate cases with similar aspects to that of Northborough, we surveyed over 20 Massachusetts farms and over 100 farms and organizations across the country. We communicated with three state agencies, as well as key stakeholders such as 31 farm owners in the other situations we studied. Using all of the data we amassed, we developed two videos and a vast matrix of information to educate future food waste recycling sites on best practices.
As a result of our research we found that there are a number of ways to deal with land-use conflicts ranging from implementation of technical systems to mitigate concerns to community outreach strategies to facilitate positive relationships between rural operations and their neighbors. Additionally, the keys to preventing such conflicts lay in inclusive planning, compromise, and communication. Food waste recycling sites can be the source of many positive benefits for all stakeholders involved if they are operated with all parties in mind. This positive operation involves comprehensive oversight of variables within the composting process, as well as use of strategies to mitigate concerns that can arise. Additionally, all possible concerns and variables must be taken into account as individuals have different tolerances to different impacts of food waste recycling sites. Finally, although not a specific aim of our initial research, we also discovered that regulations governing these sites can vary widely and have a large effect on whether conflicts may or may not arise.
In an effort to resolve the current land-use conflict in Northborough, Massachusetts, we recommend that the Davidian Bros. Farm acquire several technical systems to mitigate the concerns of the surrounding neighbors including use of compost covers and bio-organic catalysts to reduce odors, health concerns, and wildlife attraction. We also recommend that both parties take steps to rebuild a positive relationship that can serve as an example for other communities. For instance, we recommend that concerned neighbors and the farm hold meetings on a monthly basis to revitalize communication between the stakeholders so that the situation may be resolved through compromise. Through these recommendations we hope to aid in the resolution of the Northborough land-use conflict.
As the need for sustainable practices and the sprawl of urban areas increase, the likelihood of this type of conflict arising increases as well. Thus, we hope that our educational videos and comprehensive matrix of strategies to mitigate concerns will help to resolve or prevent other land-use conflicts in the future. In terms of the situation in Northborough, we believe that our recommendations can play a significant role in the resolution of their conflict. We also note that should they resolve the tension in their situation they can serve as an example for other, similar cases in the future.