TALLAHASSEE — The fight over fertilizer is on again.
Bills filed by state lawmakers would void a Pinellas County ordinance banning the sale of nitrogen-based fertilizer during the rainy season.
Supporters say the ordinance and similar but less restrictive rules in at least 19 Florida cities and counties, including Hillsborough, prevent pollution of rivers, streams and bays.
Business groups say the regulations are bad for the economy and should be consistent across the state.
"It's a whole patchwork of different local fertilizer ordinances across the 67 counties. That makes it difficult for folks who work in this field to train employees, and it also makes it difficult for retailers," said Jose Gonzalez, vice president of governmental affairs for Associated Industries of Florida. "It's almost impossible to be knowledgeable about all the rules."
"It's confusing," said Sally West, government affairs director for the Florida Retail Federation. "Especially for businesses that operate in multiple counties."
The bills, filed by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, and Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, would allow local regulations to go no further than a model ordinance developed by state agencies and would void any ordinance that regulates the sale of fertilizers.
If the bills become law, it would roll back some pieces of Hillsborough's ordinance, including a prohibition on fertilizer application 36 hours before a heavy rainstorm and within 10 feet of a water body.
It would void Pinellas County's summer sales ban rule.
Susan Latvala, who chairs the Pinellas County Commission and pressed for the fertilizer ordinance, said she's surprised that state lawmakers who say they want to keep taxes low are fighting the regulation.
"This is a way for us to clean up our waterways without having to raise taxes," she said. "We're spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the state to meet clean water guidelines. And new guidelines are coming from the Environmental Protection Agency. We're already struggling to meet the current guidelines."
Cris Costello, a spokeswoman for the Sierra Club, said it's much less expensive to keep nitrogen out of the water in the first place than it is to remove it.
"And it's jobs. Every inland waterfront community understands that water quality is the foundation of their economy," she said. "It is ridiculous to keep communities from preventing pollution when it costs them so much to clean it up."
State lawmakers have been trying to override local fertilizer rules since cities and counties started passing them in 2007.
Gonzalez, though, thinks legislators might be successful now that the state is led by Gov. Rick Scott, who has set a decidedly probusiness, antiregulation tone in Tallahassee.
"You have a governor whose whole mantra is finding ways to make the business climate in Florida better," he said.
Yes, he said, counties and cities will fight it.
"But they're going to have a hard time justifying making it more difficult for landscape companies, which are typically small business owners, contractors who do fertilizer applications and then your retailers who actually sell this stuff."
Bill sponsor Evers, whose family launched a farm supply business in 1975, said with his background in agriculture, he's "extremely sensitive to the environment and protecting our natural resources."
But the Department of Agriculture should be the agency setting fertilizer rules for the state, he said.
"That's their business, dealing with fertilizer, dealing with best management practices," he said. "That's what they've done for 150 years."
He also made the economic argument.
"During these economic times, you should not be telling retailers what they can and cannot sell on a local level," he said.
Ingram called the rules a "giant impediment to commerce."
"This isn't deregulation," he said. "It gives the state regulatory agencies the teeth to make sure good science is used when we develop policies."
Costello, though, questioned the motives behind the bills.
"We don't have opposition from residents from across the state," she said. "It is only the folks that are selling fertilizer or selling the application of fertilizer. And that is really a shame that a law would be passed for the benefit of one industry."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.