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Pinellas commission passes fertilizer ban, 6-1

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County Commissioners late Tuesday night voted 6-1 in favor of a landmark ban on fertilizer use during the summer rainy season, a move that rebuffed the lawn care industry.

Sales of fertilizer with nitrogen or phosphates will be banned starting next year from June through September — or any time during the year when big storms or flooding hit — in Pinellas County. Applying that fertilizer on lawns will be banned starting this summer.

"We all have a moral responsibility to take care of the Earth, to take care of what's given to us," said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

And there's a financial reason.

The vote came as the county faced pressure to improve water quality. Researchers blame nutrient runoff for polluting Lake Tarpon and other Tampa Bay area waters — triggering $30 million in repair projects. In Pinellas, 75 percent of waterways are rated as impaired, more than double the state average.

Federal regulators last week also proposed new standards against nutrient pollution — a move that county officials say dovetails with the Pinellas ban.

The ordinance will be the toughest attack yet on fertilizer pollution in Florida and will encourage people to use slow-release products, according to the Sierra Club, a supporter of the ban.

"It's long overdue. We've known about this for a long time," said Mike Flanery, an environmental engineer.

Commissioner Nancy Bostock voted no, saying the county hadn't justified such a tough law.

The ordinance applies countywide, Pinellas officials said, unless a city has its own law or opts out. Golf courses and farms are exempt.

There are 14 local communities with similar laws. St. Petersburg starts a summer sales ban in 2011, though only recommends against use during summer. Hillsborough County is considering fertilizer restrictions, too.

The lawn industry decried the Pinellas ordinance as a baseless burden on them that will cause misuse, higher costs and job cuts without helping the environment. They asked for a delay, if not a less stringent law.

The final hours of a months-long debate packed the commission chamber, pushing dozens of people to other courthouse floors to watch the three hours of discussions continue until near midnight.

Heavy lobbying took place through Tuesday. TruGreen, a lawn care company, had three representatives visiting commissioners' offices Tuesday: local Republican heavyweight Jim Holton, consultant Barry Edwards and Orlando attorney Dan Gerber.

The Sierra Club had a free barbecue dinner blocks from the courthouse in Clearwater. Supporters of the ban wore bright pink stickers saying, "Stop nutrient pollution with a strong fertilizer ordinance."

Turfgrass and pest control companies, such as Scotts Miracle Gro, said year-round fertilized turfgrass helps filter pollution — despite arguments to the contrary by the Sierra Club. Gerber complained the county failed to follow requirements in a 2009 state law to impose tougher standards than a model ordinance, though county officials disagreed.

The Pinellas law could impose higher costs and hurt lawns that need nutrients during the summer growing period, according to a December review by Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson's office, which noted a study on the "unintended consequences" of restrictions by University of Florida researchers.

That arm of the university has received at least $500,000 in funding from turfgrass interests, according to a St. Petersburg Times report last year.

Sierra Club officials say Bronson's office misstated requirements in state law, and the study focuses on how to grow grass, not help water quality.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas commission passes fertilizer ban, 6-1 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 11:09am]
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