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Turf war heats up over fertilizer limits in Pinellas, Hillsborough

TAMPA — With environmental regulators pressuring local governments to clean up rivers, lakes and bays, counties around the state are passing laws banning lawn fertilizer during the summer months.

In Hillsborough County, the Environmental Protection Commission, made up of county commission members, will explore the issue in a workshop on Wednesday.

The goal is to prevent excess nitrogen from running into water bodies during the rainy season. The nutrient encourages algae blooms and other negative environmental effects.

Supporters of the fertilizer ban say it's an inexpensive way to cut down nitrogen levels.

Opponents say it won't help.

So far, more than 20 cities and counties in Florida have passed rules regulating fertilizer use.

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.

Only St. Petersburg actually prohibits the retail sale of fertilizer, following recommendations of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program. Pinellas County is also considering going that route. The Pinellas ban would coincide with the effective date of St. Petersburg's ban, May 1, 2011. A public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for early next year.

"We know there's a lot of support for that in Pinellas County," said Phil Compton, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, which is pushing for the sales ban. "Hillsborough being Hillsborough, the landscape is a little different politically."

One big difference: Hillsborough has a significantly larger agricultural industry.

Among those opposed to major restrictions is Hugh Gramling, executive director of the Hillsborough-based Tampa Bay Wholesale Growers Association.

"There's no science to support a blackout rule," Gramling said. He cited a University of Florida report that concluded banning fertilizer in the summer could result in "an inadvertent increase" in pollution if homeowners overfertilize before and after the blackout.

The turf industry has paid at least $505,000 for research projects by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science since 2006, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of school documents. Researchers say the source of the funding had no impact on their conclusions.

Gramling says when fertilizer is applied properly, all the nitrogen is absorbed by the plants.

"Properly applied means you don't sling it onto a driveway or sidewalk or into a street, and you don't get too close to a water body," he said.

Hillsborough County commissioners are shying away from anything too restrictive.

"I can't go so far as to say I'm opposed to a ban. I'm opposed to a regulation that can't be enforced," said Al Higginbotham, who represents southeastern Hillsborough County and chairs the Environmental Protection Commission. "Whatever we do, I want it to have a heavy educational component."

Even if the county does pass a sales ban, he said, people could drive somewhere else to buy the fertilizer.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who at last month's EPC meeting pushed to move forward with the fertilizer ordinance, said he also is concerned about passing an unenforceable law.

He has suggested promoting a voluntary ban, along with an aggressive educational program.

"I wouldn't mind taking a stronger approach because I think it's important to protect our water bodies," Sharpe said. "It's just a matter of making sure it works."

Four options will be presented to the Environmental Protection Commission, ranging from the state rules to a total ban on sales, said Rick Garrity, the EPC's executive director.

The sales ban, he said, would offer the most protection and has another advantage: "That would be easiest thing to enforce."

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

Turf war heats up over fertilizer limits in Pinellas, Hillsborough 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 9:28pm]
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