Hillsborough County commissioners delay decision on lawn fertilizer ban

TAMPA — For more than two hours on Thursday, supporters and opponents of a summertime ban on nitrogen-based lawn fertilizer in Hillsborough County said their ultimate goal is to protect the area's waterways.

They just disagree on how best to do it.

Plant City resident Harold Falls argued the ban would increase polluting runoff by making turf less healthy.

"Can you imagine no grass in Hillsborough County? Think of Arizona. It's all sand and rocks," he said.

Tampa resident Mary Bright countered that she lives on a lake that is no longer safe for swimming and fishing because of pollution. She said she has never used fertilizer on her own yard and it's an attractive mix of naturally growing grass and weeds.

"Pretty St. Augustine lawns are a symptom of the superficiality that has been a part of the problem that led to the declining fish stocks," she said. "We need to get over wanting things to look perfect."

Hillsborough County commissioners, though, meeting as the Environmental Protection Commission, decided to wait until next month to make a decision on the ban. They agreed that with afternoon meetings looming, there wasn't enough time for debate and a vote.

"I've got four pages of questions that I wanted to ask," Commissioner Mark Sharpe said.

Among his most pressing questions: How much polluting nitrogen would the ban actually keep out of local waterways?

Ban opponents say it will reduce nitrogen levels by only 1 percent. Backers put the figure at 4 percent.

Environmental protection groups have been pushing for the prohibition, saying summer rains flush excess nitrogen into waterways, making them unhealthy for wildlife.

The bans have been catching on: Pinellas County and St. Petersburg have approved them.

Hillsborough's proposed ordinance would ban the sale and use of fertilizer with nitrogen and phosphorous between June 1 and Sept. 30. It would exempt golf courses and farms. If approved, it would take effect next year.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services and University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences say there isn't enough scientific evidence to support a ban.

The institute, though, has close ties to the turf industry, which has paid at least $505,000 for its research projects since 2006. Collaborators on the state's Florida-friendly landscape guide, which provides model fertilizer ordinances, include largely organizations affiliated with the pest control, landscape and irrigation industries.

Among other things, the guide's model ordinance suggests immediately cleaning up fertilizer that spills onto hard surfaces and using deflector shields on spreaders.

But the Environmental Protection Commission staff, Tampa City Council and Tampa Bay Estuary Program support a summertime ban.

Officials with the estuary program want the ordinance enacted regionwide, estimating that 50 percent compliance would remove 84 tons of nitrogen from Tampa Bay.

In Hillsborough alone, it would reduce nitrogen by 30 tons.

"The regional message is key here," said Tom Ash, general manager of environmental restoration for the EPC, pointing out that pollution doesn't stop at an imaginary line in Tampa Bay.

He said the rule could help the region comply with new federal water-quality standards that limit nitrogen levels in surface water. If those levels are exceeded, Hillsborough County taxpayers would have to pay up to $6 million to clean up the water, he said.

The board will revisit the issue at its meeting July 15.

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

Hillsborough County commissioners delay decision on lawn fertilizer ban 06/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 12:52am]

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