TAMPA — Tampa City Council members on Thursday gave initial approval to ban the sale and use of fertilizers with nitrogen during the summer rainy season.
But not this summer's rainy season.
If the council passes the ordinance again on June 23, Tampa will join Pinellas County and its cities as having the most restrictive fertilizer sales laws in the state.
Starting in June 2012, no fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus could be sold or used on residential lawns from June 1 to Sept. 30. During the rest of the year, residents would have to use fertilizer that contains at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen.
Farms, golf courses and vegetable gardens would be exempt from the ordinance.
Advocates such as the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the Sierra Club say the ordinance would help prevent nitrogen from being washed from residents' yards into Tampa Bay, where it could feed harmful algae blooms.
This would keep the bay clean and preserve jobs tied to the waterfront, they said. It also would save the city the cost of removing nitrogen from storm water runoff.
"This is an approach that will give us cleaner water, lower taxes and actually help your lawns because it will reduce the chinch bug and root rot fungus problems (that occur) when we apply too much nitrogen in the summertime," said Phil Compton of the Sierra Club.
But former state Sen. John Grant, who said he represents a coalition of businesses such as retailers and yard care companies, said the ordinance would economically punish small businesses that feed the city's coffers, and customers would simply go elsewhere.
"What you're going to do is simply cause people to drive outside the city limits," Grant told council members.
Council members voted 6-1 for the proposed ordinance. Council member Frank Reddick, who has asked for information about the economic impact of the ban, voted against it.
A new law passed this spring by the Legislature gives the state the authority to regulate sales of fertilizer. The only cities and counties that will be exempt will be those that pass laws of their own by July 1.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection monitor the amount of nutrients such as nitrogen that flow into Tampa Bay. Those levels currently meet state and federal standards, officials say, but they are expected to rise as development resumes. The result could be federal fines for local governments whose nitrogen levels exceed established limits.
Removing a pound of nitrogen from the environment costs about $3,500, according to the estuary program, a partnership of local governments. Proponents of the ban estimate it would prevent eight tons of nitrogen from getting into Tampa's waterways even if only half the city complied with the law, saving the city an estimated $56 million in removal costs.
"We're going to be saving money in the cost of cleanup," council member Mary Mulhern said.
Studies commissioned by Pinellas County, which already has a ban in place, have concluded that nitrogen is feeding a buildup of muck in Tampa Bay near Safety Harbor and that fertilizer accounts for 79 percent of the nitrogen in Lake Tarpon.
But fertilizer manufacturers and lawn care companies oppose the sales ban, saying it's unnecessary, unscientific and potentially counterproductive. They point to a report from the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences that says Pinellas County's study did not establish whether the fertilizer polluting Lake Tarpon had been applied properly.
Opponents also say that not using nitrogen fertilizers would weaken turf, which could allow more runoff than dense, healthy turf.
It would be better, industry representatives say, to educate consumers about how and when to use fertilizers so that they maintain their lawns without contributing to runoff pollution.
Grant predicted that the city is likely to see a legal challenge if the ban wins final approval.
"If this ordinance is passed on the 23rd, the game is not over," he said. "It simply moves from City Hall to the courthouse."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.