Fertilizer ban wins backing

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, December 9, 2009

TAMPA — Hillsborough County appears poised to join Pinellas County and St. Petersburg in a sales ban on lawn fertilizer with nitrogen during the rainy season.

The goal is to reduce the amount of nitrogen that makes its way to local waters. The nutrient causes algae blooms that harm marine life.

During a workshop Wednesday of the Environmental Protection Commission, which is made up of Hillsborough County commissioners, a majority indicated they would back a sales ban.

Commissioners Kevin White, Rose Ferlita and Kevin Beckner were solid in their support. Commissioner Mark Sharpe is leaning in that direction.

"There's no question in my mind that as we've grown as a population in Florida and more people have come in here and more people have more yards, we're contributing to the problem," Sharpe said. "If it's a matter of yards or wildlife and fish, we've got to favor on the side of the water, the wildlife and the fish."

Beckner and Ferlita noted that the fertilizer rules need to be consistent across the region to be effective. And all the commissioners talked about the importance of educating people about proper fertilizer application.

"Probably 80 percent of Americans are kind of like I am. If a half a bag is good, a whole bag is better," White said. "You don't know the implications or the ramifications of what you're doing to the environment or anything else."

Only commissioner Al Higginbotham expressed reservations, questioning whether research supports the claim that residential fertilizer in stormwater run-off contributes to algae blooms.

He also cautioned against the EPC making the rule without consulting with the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace. If the EPC passes the rule, the ban would apply to the cities. If the Board of County Commissioners addresses fertilizer use in an ordinance, it would apply only to the unincorporated parts of the county.

Commissioners made no formal decisions on Wednesday. EPC staff members said they would craft an ordinance by early next year for further discussion.

More than 20 cities and counties in Florida have passed rules regulating fertilizer use in the past two years.

Some follow a model ordinance included in a state law passed last year that requires local governments along impaired water bodies to ban the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers when the forecast calls for heavy rain.

Others go further, banning the use of fertilizers altogether during the rainy months between June and September.

A St. Petersburg ordinance prohibits the retail sale of fertilizer, following recommendations of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. The sales ban goes into effect May 1, 2011. Pinellas County has scheduled a public hearing on a similar ordinance for early next year.

All the ordinances include exemptions for farms, golf courses, athletic fields and vegetable gardens.

Supporters of the fertilizer ban say it's an inexpensive way to meet impending state and federal requirements to reduce nitrogen and other pollutants in rivers, lakes and bays.

Bob Stetler, director of the EPC's wetlands division, said it would cost taxpayers more than $1 million to remove nitrogen from runoff through treatment and mechanical means.

Rich Brown, a long-time advocate for the Hillsborough River, said the rainy season ban is the only way to control nitrogen.

"Without that you can't stop the average citizen from putting stuff down," he said.

Opponents say the fertilizer ban won't help, warning of even more nitrogen ending up in local waters when people over-fertilize before and after the black-out months.

Erica Santella, technical manager for the lawn maintenance company TruGreen, urged commissioners to adopt the state's model ordinance, which was developed by University of Florida researchers, state environmental and agricultural officials and industry leaders.

"It does weigh heavily on science and not on emotion," she said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.