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Pinellas County fines Home Depot $9,000 for violating nitrogen fertilizer sales ban

The Home Depot has become the first business fined by Pinellas County for violating a ban on selling fertilizer during the summer.

Pinellas has given the Atlanta-based retailer until Aug. 22 to sign a consent order agreeing to pay $9,073.82 in fines and promising to stop selling the prohibited fertilizers.

But in a twist, the fight is not about big bags of lawn fertilizer.

It's about plant food.

Pinellas inspections revealed Home Depot's violations mostly involved fertilizer for plants like roses, citrus and vegetables in seven stores.

It's a market niche that wasn't seriously, if at all, debated in 2010 when the County Commission passed the ban over the objections of lawn services. The ban restricts use or sales of products with nitrogen or phosphorous from June 1 to Sept. 30 each year in order to stave off pollution running from yards into waterways.

Home Depot spokesman Steve Holmes called the violations "regrettable miscommunication" and said stores are now "fully compliant." A county inspector confirmed the retailer no longer has any banned products on its shelves Wednesday.

The county ordinance specifically refers to lawns and landscape plants, but vegetable gardens are exempt.

Any general use fertilizer with the banned ingredients falls under the restriction, said Kelli Levy, watershed management director for Pinellas. Products exclusively used for food plants and indoor plants aren't included, she said.

County inspectors found anywhere from two to 26 banned products in each Home Depot store inspected in July.

That led to $1,000 fines for each store, instead of each product. The county then upped the fine 10 percent for the degree of willfulness, and tacked on administrative fees.

"This, technically, could have been a lot higher. We did one fine per store. … It's important to be fair to the retailers who complied on Day One," Levy said.

Plant food's inclusion in the ban also surprised Don Prahl, owner of Dolins Garden Center in St. Petersburg. Prahl said he was forced to pull several thousand dollars worth of plant fertilizer from his shelves recently after an inspector's visit, despite no problems in prior inspections.

"I'm 100 percent in favor of cleaning up the waters. I think there are parts of the rule that do need to be loosened," Prahl said, noting that fertilizer for flowers such as roses should be allowed.

In a separate case, TruGreen, a lawn care company that opposed the ban, faces a possible $370 fine after applying fertilizer during a spring storm, which also is restricted, Levy said. That consent decree is being drafted.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com.

Pinellas County fines Home Depot $9,000 for violating nitrogen fertilizer sales ban 08/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 9:06pm]
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