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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Fertilizer bill narrowly passes House committee

23

March

A controversial bill that would ban cities and counties from regulating fertilizer use and sale faced surprising resistance from House Republicans on Wednesday.  If the bill becomes law, it would render void Pinellas County and St. Petersburg ordinances that ban summersales of nitrogen-based fertilizers.

Environmental advocates say such ordinances help prevent pollution of local waterways due to runoff during the rainy season. City and county leaders say the ordinances are a cheap way to limit pollution of rivers and bays clean and avoid expensive clean-up costs to meet federal clean water standards.  Retailers say the ordinances are bad for business.

The bill would prohibit cities and counties from going any further than a model ordinance approved by the Legislature that includes such provisions as avoiding fertilizing before a heavy rain.

"This is the best way to improve water quality," said Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican who is sponsoring the bill in the House. "It's the right thing to do for business."

The bill, though, received reluctant criticism from Ingram's fellow Republicans as well as Democrats, and passed by a narrow margin. Rep. Jose Diaz, R-Miami broke a 6-6 tie vote on the measure when he returned to the meeting room after a brief absence to vote in favor of it

Also backing the bill: Rep. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican in his first term. After hearing testimony from a University of Florida researcher who said residential fertilizer accounts for just 3 percent of water pollution and animal waste accounts for up to 15 percent, Brandes suggested banning the sale of puppies.

After the meeting, Brandes said he supported the bill because he believes the matter needs more discussion. 

"I don't think it's a perfect bill," he said. "Regulations should be regional, not statewide."

He doesn't believe going hyper local works, he said. Places like Pinellas County, which has more than 20 cities, could end up with dozens of different fertilizer ordinances. Plus, given that neighboring Hillsborough doesn't have a sales ban, there's nothing to stop Pinellas residents from driving over the bridge to buy fertilizer. And finally, Brandes said he believes sales bans might prompt people to overfertilize in the weeks before the ban hits.

"How can you ever judge if it's effective or not?" he said. 

Committee members, though, seemed swayed by arguments that the state can't have a "one size fits all" approach to the problem and to the pleas of city and county lobbyists.  Rep. Ed Hooper, a Clearwater Republican, said the bill is one he could easily argue for or against. In such cases, he said, it's best to consider feedback from the people he represents. And his Blackberry, he said, was filled up with messages from people opposing the bill.

"I wish Pinellas wasn't so stringent," Hooper said before casting his vote against the proposal. "Maybe they have reached out to the point where there is some need to address their level of restriction."

The bill has two more committee stops before it goes to the House floor. A companion bill in the Senate has three more stops before it will be heard by the full Senate.

[Last modified: Wednesday, March 23, 2011 4:21pm]

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