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Pesticide-Free Town Abuzz Over Spraying

August 16, 2004|Donna Horowitz | Special to The Times

FAIRFAX, Calif. — This Marin County town of 7,500, a mix of counterculture types and young families, has declared itself a nuclear-free and pesticide-free zone.

Its nuclear posture isn't likely to change, but Fairfax's 3-year-old ban on pesticides has come under review after a crow killed by the West Nile virus was found in town.

The crow was discovered July 22. Three more dead crows, two in Fairfax and one in neighboring San Anselmo, are being tested. Nine birds have succumbed to the disease in neighboring Sonoma County.

The outbreak of the virus, which has killed five people in California, prompted Fairfax to call an emergency session Aug. 6 to consider temporarily rescinding the ban. The meeting drew about 150 people, but only one speaker supported lifting the ban, according to town administrator Alan Bengyel.

The Town Council took no action after Mayor Frank Egger advised Fairfax from afar -- he was fishing on the Yuba River -- that a four-fifths vote was necessary for any change to the ordinance he wrote three years ago.

Because only three council members were present, the meeting was continued to Tuesday. "I'm opposed to spraying, period," Egger said. "First of all, there's no guarantee if they spray our entire town that they're going to get all the mosquitoes in town."

The Fairfax ordinance prohibits spraying pesticides on town property. Egger says the ordinance is the only one of its type that also requires residents to give neighbors 48 hours notice if they plan to spray their yards.

Although the Marin-Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District has no plans to spray in Fairfax and is collecting mosquitoes only for testing, the district has been in a dispute with the town over its ordinance. The district contends that state law gives it authority to spray if it wants to.

Fairfax officials wrote to the California Department of Health Services on Aug. 4 asking it to require the mosquito district to cooperate with Fairfax. The town wants notice if the district plans to spray and an analysis of the environmental effects of doing so. The letter said the town would lift the ban "if there are valid public health and safety reasons for doing so."

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Chris Canterbury, spokesman for the mosquito district, said his agency was willing to work with Fairfax on the notification process. Though he said the district doesn't run roughshod over local communities, if Fairfax doesn't rescind its ban, "I'm sure it would go to legal counsel."

The latest controversy is nothing new for Fairfax.

"Fairfax is the most progressive of the 11 incorporated cities in Marin [County]," Egger said. "Fairfax was the first city in Marin to oppose the Patriot Act. Fairfax was the only city in Marin to oppose the Iraq war in the beginning. Fairfax has the highest living-wage law in the nation. Fairfax is an anti-nuclear zone."

The town's laid-back lifestyle is much in evidence. Residents can buy a scoop of organic ice cream at a shop with lines often out the door or dine in a vegetarian restaurant in the old-fashioned downtown.

Emily Bender, a 33-year-old nutritionist who was attending the weekly farmers market, opposes any plan to lift the pesticide ban because she fears the chemicals can cause brain cancer and thyroid problems.

Bender, who has an 8-month-old son named Abraham, said she moved to Fairfax from San Francisco 3 1/2 years ago to get away from bus fumes and the cleaning products used in her apartment building.

Bill Lescohier, a 40-year-old teacher who had gone to the Fairfax Scoop with his wife and two children, called the issue of spraying a "tough question."

"I appreciate Fairfax for being an outpost -- pesticide-free and nuclear-free -- but I guess the piece of information I lack is the efficacy of the spraying," he said. "If it's really effective to spray for mosquitoes, then go and do it. If it's a hit-or-miss thing, I don't think it's worth lifting the ban."

Mike Ghiringhelli, a pizzeria owner who considers himself the only moderate on the Fairfax Town Council, said he would vote to lift the ban.

He said the mosquito district would y spray only as a last resort and only in isolated areas with a high concentration of mosquitoes carrying the virus.

Ghiringhelli has accused Egger, who also is a mosquito board member, of misleading the public by saying the district does wholesale fogging. He has called for Egger's resignation.

Egger, 65, who has been on the council for 38 years, said he had no intention of resigning.

Vice Mayor Lew Tremaine said he'd vote to lift the ban only if the mosquito district agreed to work with the town on notifying residents before spraying.

So far, all the mosquitoes trapped in Fairfax and Sonoma County have tested negative for the virus, Canterbury said.

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