AUGUSTA — Residents would have the option of not having the sidewalks next to their homes sprayed with chemicals if they agree to get rid of the weeds themselves.

That choice is offered under a new herbicide ordinance and policy meant to control weeds on city sidewalks and other property.

Councilors are scheduled to hold the first of two required readings on the proposed new herbicide rules at their meeting tonight, which begins at 7 p.m. in council chambers at Augusta City Center.

For the last two years, the city suspended its program spraying herbicides on residential neighborhood sidewalks but still sprayed along major city thoroughfares.

Mayor William Stokes, who served on a committee that studied the issue for two years, said people opposed to the use of herbicides made their views clear but were few in number.

“We went through two years of no spraying so we could gather some data,” Stokes said at a recent meeting. “The results were dramatic, I’d say. The weed growth and damage to infrastructure were obvious, and we were not satisfied an organic alternative has been identified that is as safe or effective as what we do now.”

The committee studied the issue after residents expressed concern about the health effects the plant-killing chemicals could have on them, their children and their pets. Some of those same residents suggested the city not use herbicides at all and control weeds in other ways.

City officials, however, said while they will use as little herbicide as possible, they will continue to use the Roundup-like synthetic chemical they use now, which they say is safe. Not killing weeds at all, they say, would allow the plants to damage sidewalks.

Natural, organic plant-killing substances don’t work as well, are more expensive, and come with their own health risks, according to Leif Dahlin, director of community services.

“We couldn’t find any evidence to suggest, empirically, there are health issues with the product we’re using,” Dahlin said. “Naturals and organics, when it comes to herbicides, we didn’t see anything that gets the job done.”

Under the proposed ordinance, residents who don’t want the city to spray near their homes can complete an opt-out form, in which they agree to get rid of weeds in the city’s right of way near their homes by themselves.

Dahlin said if residents opt out but then don’t remove the weeds, the city will have workers remove the weeds — mechanically, not chemically — and the resident would be billed for the cost. He said city workers in those instances probably would use weed-whackers to respect the resident’s wishes that herbicides not be used.

Jim Goulet, the city’s director of parks, cemeteries and trees, said the city uses as little herbicide as possible. In areas where there are no weeds, he said, no chemicals will be used, even if nearby residents have not opted out of spraying.

During those two years, sidewalks not sprayed deteriorated much more than those that were, as weeds grew through them and left cracks, which then allowed water to get in and freeze, causing the pavement break up, city officials say.

City Manager William Bridgeo said the city received a significant number of complaints about the condition of neighborhood sidewalks.

No residents spoke against the new policy when it was presented to city councilors at a recent meeting.

At their meeting, councilors are also scheduled to:

* Consider approving a zoning change allowing educational services as a permitted use in the Civic Center Development District, an area which encompasses the University of Maine at Augusta campus. The use was erroneously eliminated from the district in a 2007 redraft, officials said;

* consider adopting their goals for 2012;

* consider accepting a $1,900 grant to establish a vegetable garden at Lincoln Elementary School and expand the current garden at Gilbert Elementary School; and

* meet in a closed-door session for negotiations on the sale or lease of property.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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