About 25 years ago, Alfred S. Bassler began running a composting facility on his Clarksville property, using part of his 430-acre farm to recycle trees after they had been cleared to make way for development.
For years -- ever since the building boom in the 1980s, when Bassler's compost piles grew -- neighbors have tried to shut down the operation.
They say the facility, sometimes called a "stump dump," creates too much noise and air pollution and should not be allowed in a residential area.
Last night, the Howard County Board of Appeals held its fourth hearing on the topic since the Planning Board recommended against allowing the facility in August 1998.
Bassler, 72, is seeking a special exception for 68.73 acres on Sheppard Lane off Route 108 so that he can continue his composting business.
Both sides expect the complicated issue to generate many more hearings before the Board of Appeals votes on Bassler's composting facility. A vote has not been scheduled.
Bassler's lawyer, Thomas E. Lloyd of Ellicott City, said Bassler shouldn't need a special exception because he began composting long before houses sprung up around his farm.
Lloyd also argued that Bassler is performing a valuable service for the community.
"It doesn't create any adverse effect, it doesn't hurt anybody, and it creates a great public service," Lloyd said.
As long as the county welcomes development, he said, it should provide for a place to put the natural waste.
"We have to do something with the trees," he said. "The only alternative is to haul it some 50-60 miles away in a great big old truck that burns fuel. Here, it's a natural process. All it takes is time."
Opponents disagree. Although originally surrounded by farmland, Bassler's recycling facility is now bordered by housing developments on three sides.
Neighbors from Sheppard Lane, Twelve Tree Court and Chapel Chase Drive have said the facility not only produces a horrible stench but is also a fire hazard because the decaying compost generates heat.
Fires have ignited at the stump dump twice, in 1991 and 1998. In both instances, neighbors have said, the smoke lasted for days.
Jennifer Lee, who lives near the Bassler property in the Twelve Hills community, said she worries a great deal about one of her two children, who has asthma. She also said the smell can be terrible, especially during the summer, and she can hear the noise over the television even with her windows closed.
"I did not buy a house in an industrial park," she said, "and that's how I feel we are living."
Sometimes, she said, she won't let her children play outside because the smell is so bad.
"Unless the Board of Appeals shuts this down, we are going to keep suffering," she said.