Pesky Issues

New York counties share GIS data to help pesticide spraying companies comply with notification law.

by / July 31, 2006

In eight New York state counties, lawn care is not just a matter of pride; it's a matter of law.

To address growing concerns over health risks associated with pesticides, Albany, Erie, Monroe, Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk, Tompkins and Westchester counties have opted into the state's 2000 Neighbor Notification Law, which requires homeowners and commercial pesticide spraying companies to inform owners of adjacent properties of upcoming pesticide applications. New York City also opted into the Neighborhood Notification Law and has one agreement for its five counties.

The law, crafted by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, is completely optional. However, counties that adopt the law must accept it in its entirety without changing any text.

When it comes to small-scale residential projects conducted by home and property owners, complying with the Neighbor Notification Law is easy: It simply requires residential lawn applicators to post warning signs the day of application and 24 hours following the treatment.

For commercial spraying companies, however, giving a 48-hour notice to all abutting properties within 150 feet of the spraying location -- as the law stipulates -- can be time-consuming.

To help commercial applicators solve this problem -- and ultimately comply with the law -- Erie and Monroe counties have found different ways to share their geographic information system (GIS) data with spraying companies.

Right to Know
For Dr. Andrew Doniger, Monroe County's health director, health concerns were not uppermost in that county's decision to opt into the Neighbor Notification Law. "It's more of an opportunity, a right for people to know what exposures they have, rather than being a law primarily focused on health risks," he said.

Rick Wojcik, Erie County's supervising public health sanitarian, recognized that many pesticides are desiccants and nerve agents, and therefore dangerous when used in large quantities. He added that people with allergies to chemical components of pesticides could potentially experience respiratory problems if exposed.

However, Wojcik said the county's decision to opt into the law was largely political. "Many [environmental groups] wanted to see a reduction of pesticides used. They thought this law would cause pesticide companies to switch to less toxic or safer brands of pesticides and use granules rather than sprays, or switch to bio-pesticides rather than chemical pesticides."

To Comply or Not?
Regardless of the potential health hazards associated with pesticides, commercial applicators working in counties that have opted into the law must comply with its stipulations -- or face $5,000 to $10,000 fines, respectively, for first and second offenses.

"The law says the pesticide applicator needs to provide a notice to the neighbors," Doniger explained. "That has been interpreted to mean either a letter in the mail or a handbill that is delivered and generally attached to the doorknob of the property owner."

That task can be daunting, according to Shilpa George, vice president of Intelligent Decision Systems Inc. (IDSi), a GIS solutions provider based in Fort Lee, N.J.

"The big problem is how to get the addresses of the abutting properties," she said. "You have to send somebody there, and they have to physically walk around and try to find the addresses of all those places. It's a very difficult thing to do."

To give commercial applicators the means to comply with the law, IDSi approached the Erie County Department of Environment and Planning in early 2006, and proposed the Neighbor Notification Service (NNS), a solution that would require the county to share some of its GIS data with the company. Erie County accepted.

"We approached them and said, 'We can develop this service,'" George explained, adding that IDSi funded the $50,000 solution -- not the county.

To use the service, spraying companies register online for a free account. Once in the system, they enter their customers' addresses -- along with other pertinent information, such as the company's name and certification identification number, and the EPA registration number for the name of the intended chemical.

With this information and Erie County's GIS data, the NNS identifies the addresses of all properties abutting the residence to undergo pesticide treatment. The system then links to a U.S. post office that generates and mails notification postcards to those properties. George said customers should submit their requests at least six days in advance to allow for mailing time and still comply with the 48-hour notice requirement.

The service costs 50 cents per card, which includes the stamp, George explained, and spraying companies are billed once a month. In addition, they can log on to the site any time to see the status of their requests.

Erie and Rockland counties are currently the only ones sharing GIS data with IDSi. George said three or four companies use the service now.

On the other hand, Monroe County is providing its own solution, Doniger said, and the county's GIS department works directly with commercial applicators.

"A Web developer was actually in the midst of doing some work for the county, so it was a very simple process for us to incorporate it into the work scope," he said of the county's solution.

"Licensed operators, if they apply, are given a log in and a password, and they can log on to the county's Web site as a user -- much like a county employee would be -- and get into the GIS application," Doniger said, adding that the operators must provide credentials conforming to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation prior to registration. "You have to have a license to apply pesticides in New York state."

Once logged in, commercial applicators enter addresses of properties they will spray, and obtain a list of addresses for the adjacent properties.

"The list can be converted into a set of mailing labels," Doniger said, "and the operator can then mail them to the property owners without having to send someone into the neighborhood and actually deliver the notices.

"There is no registration fee," Doniger added. "We anticipated that this might be a way we could help facilitate the smooth implementation of the law."

At press time, 140 spraying companies had registered, according to Stephen Schwartzmeier, GIS operations manager for Monroe County's Department of Environmental Services.

Not only do these GIS solutions encourage compliance, but they also are financially sound for commercial applicators.

"Economically it makes so much sense." George said, explaining that sending an employee in the field simply for address recognition costs time and money. "And it's taking you off the [job] you're supposed to be doing, which is spraying. They're not in the address business."

Although these solutions have made it easier for commercial applicators to abide by the law, George believes compliance is still an issue. "Some of them want to comply," she said of commercial applicators. "Others feel that there's never going to be any enforcement ... which is not really true. There have been previous cases of fines."

Wojcik said he is in charge of noncompliance complaints in Erie, and so far none of them has had to go to court. This could mean that companies are either complying or not getting caught.

In addition, Wojcik estimated that 75 percent of complaints don't actually violate the law.

"I think the public doesn't quite understand the law, and there are some applications that are exempt," he said, noting that fertilizers and granular pesticides are exempt from the 48-hour notification, but neighbors, unable to discern between treatment types, often call to report them.

"It's a difficult law to enforce," Wojcik said. "The only proof we have of an application that was not given proper notification would be the receipt from the customer. It's very difficult to go after the fact and test the lawn to determine what type of pesticide was used."
Corine Stofle Staff Writer