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Safety Harbor discusses summer fertilizer ban

SAFETY HARBOR — Following Pinellas County's lead, Safety Harbor is thinking about a summertime fertilizer ban of its own.

"We're not saying you can't fertilize your yard," Mayor Andy Steingold said. "We just want to put a limit on it so we can reduce the excess" seeping into Old Tampa Bay.

On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission discussed regulating fertilizer that can wash nitrogen and phosphates into waterways and feed harmful algae blooms, like one this summer that stretched 14 miles across Tampa Bay.

The county's proposed ordinance, which is based on a model drafted by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, would run from June 1 to Sept. 30 and apply to turf and landscape. Golf courses, vegetable gardens and farms would be exempt. Penalties range from court appearances to thousands of dollars in fines.

Officials at the Estuary Program estimate bans in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties would keep 84 tons of nitrogen a year out of the bay.

Safety Harbor leaders have not ironed out details of a city ordinance and are not sure how they would enforce it. The city employs just one 20-hour-a-week code enforcement officer at a cost of about $34,000 a year.

"We're still in a data-finding" mode, said city manager Matt Spoor. "We're waiting to see what this countywide template would look like."

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Safety Harbor, which is on Old Tampa Bay and has several creeks that flow into it, dumps 5 tons of nitrogen a year into the bay.

"What we want to do is not exceed that," said Ray Boler, Safety Harbor's public works director. "That's kind of our yardstick so that we don't create a worse environment."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the total maximum daily load of pollutants that waterways can handle.

Safety Harbor could face fines and other penalties for dumping more than 5 tons.

"If we can stop the water from having these levels of chemicals in them," Spoor said, "then that's less money that we have to expend to remove those chemicals on the back end."

This past summer, one of the largest algae blooms on record stretched 14 miles from Safety Harbor to Weedon Island.

The Estuary Program contends that harmful algae growth, which reduces oxygen available to fish, could be minimized with the use of a slow-release fertilizer rather than regular landscape fertilizer. It reduces the risk of leaching and is considered more environmentally friendly.

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Safety Harbor has tried for years to figure out ways to improve its water quality.

It commissioned a yearlong muck study with the cities of Oldsmar and Clearwater and other agencies. The study found that the sticky glop growing on the bottom of the bay is being accelerated by human behavior, including allowing fertilizers to flow into the bay.

Additionally, the city is about to embark on a $3 million drainage improvement project along S Bayshore Boulevard between Alligator Creek and Main Street. When complete, catch basins will allow storm water runoff to be treated before it enters the bay.

The idea of a fertilizer ban surfaced around February. Since then, e-mails have been exchanged with the Sierra Club, Pinellas County Environmental Management and other groups. There have been no formal discussions or presentations, but brief mentions at City Commission meetings.

Safety Harbor can choose to accept a Pinellas County ordinance as is or pass its own.

At Tuesday's workshop, county commissioners discussed an opt-out clause for jurisdictions that already have an ordinance or want to adopt their own.

"We want to make our citizens aware of what's going on and the impacts that nitrogen has on water bodies," Boler said. "If you let somebody know, they will work with us. They want to do right."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4167.

Safety Harbor discusses summer fertilizer ban 10/27/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 27, 2009 9:05pm]

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