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Pinellas County toughens proposed fertilizer ban

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission toughened a proposed ban on fertilizing lawns during the summer Tuesday, despite opposition from the turf industry.

The commission voted 5-2 to strip a one-time exemption for using fertilizer from June to September from the ordinance, which applies to products with nitrogen or phosphorous.

Commissioner Susan Latvala, who pressed for removing the exemption, said the ordinance will succeed based on public education, and the exemption would be "contradictory to what we're trying to do."

"Making all these exemptions is just talking out of both sides of the mouth," Latvala said. Golf courses and farms remain exempt.

Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Calvin Harris voted against removing the exemption. They thought the exemption was fair because people would have to go through testing to show their lawns needed the fertilizer. County staffers included the exemption to help distressed areas recover.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have pressed for the measure to protect bodies of water from pollution from runoff with nitrogen or phosphorous. Algae blooms are blamed on polluted runoff. The groups opposed the exemption, which was not part of recommendations by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program that seeks similar laws around the region, including Hillsborough County.

But some lawn care companies have sought a weaker measure, arguing a summertime ban will hurt business and not necessarily improve water quality. However, three of five lawn care and landscaping companies reported no economic trouble in Sarasota County, according to responses received by Pinellas.

The companies have cited research by a University of Florida center, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, suggesting bans have "unintended consequences." But those researchers have received at least $505,000 from turf grass industry groups for their work, a Times review found in October.

"We know the ordinance is unenforceable," said Erica Santella of TruGreen, telling the board: "You don't have lawn police to enforce it."

Pinellas officials propose focusing mostly on retailers, such as nurseries, and hardware and big-box stores, when the retail ban would take effect in 2011, matching a similar St. Petersburg law. There are fewer than 20 such business in unincorporated Pinellas, said county environmental manager director Will Davis.

"They aren't going to be difficult to keep up with," Davis said.

Homeowners wouldn't face stiff penalties unless they had repeated violations. The maximum fine is $500, although county officials expect fines to fall closer to $100 for a violation.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

The story has been changed to reflect the following correction:

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program did not recommend a one-time exemption from a proposed Pinellas County ban on fertilizing. A story on 3B Wednesday misstated the group's position.

FAST FACTS

What's next

The Pinellas County Commission will hold a Jan. 19 public hearing on the proposed fertilizer ban. The ban would affect areas in unincorporated Pinellas County. A retail sales ban would start in May 2011. Consumers could not apply fertilizer starting in rainy summer months, beginning with June to September 2010.

Pinellas County toughens proposed fertilizer ban 12/01/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 2, 2009 2:33pm]

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