Hillsborough County Commissioners Delay Vote on Fertilizer Ordinance

06/10/10 Matthew Cimitile
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Hillsborough County Commissioners voted to delay a decision on an ordinance that would ban the use and sale of fertilizer during the summer rainy season. They delayed their decision despite a packed public hearing earlier today.

Scientists, lawn care specialists, environmentalists and citizens crammed into a public Environmental Protection Commission hearing to listen and provide arguments for and against a proposed ordinance that would ban residential use of fertilizer between June 1 and September 30. Councilwoman Rose Ferlita echoed many on the commission by stating good arguments were found on both sides.

“Both sides have extremely, extremely compelling arguments. At one point if I listen to some people who have spoken I’m comfortable voting then somebody else comes up and they say something that has merit as well, so I think this is serious for our county. It is certainly an environmentally sensitive issue and I think we shouldn’t be faulted for the time that we need to make a good decision.”

The ordinance prohibits the application of fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus during the summer rainy season to limit the amount of chemical runoff into the bay. The commission also has the option of outlawing the retail sales of lawn and landscape fertilizer that has nitrogen and phosphorus. Environmental Protection Commission general manager Tom Ash cited the benefits of such a rule.

“If we can help Hillsborough County government reduce nutrient loads we will be helping each other, hand in hand and partnering together to limit the amount of nutrients that get into the bay, get into our tributaries and therefore would have to be cleaned up later. That will be a huge, huge economic impact for the citizens of Hillsborough County. We are talking about estimated nitrogen loads is 628 tons per year. The cost to remove nitrogen can be anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 per ton, so the potential savings in Hillsborough County alone of that component is about 30 tons per year or anywhere from 1.2 to 6 million dollars.”

Most who spoke were against the ban and had some connection to the agriculture and turf grass industry. They said that the county should promote education rather than regulation to solve the fertilizer runoff problem in the bay area. Mary Hartney is president of Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association.

“The best thing that can be done is to better educate everyone on this issue because everyone wants to do the right thing. I agree completely. What has happened now with your ordinance is that it has skipped over the opportunity to provide education to the people of Hillsborough county, to give them an opportunity to do the right thing and it went directly to an over regulatory approach with a sales and use ban. The sales and use ban fail to recognize the impact of the urban turf rule on what products are available to the homeowner.

Others, like Jeff Fellinger of TruGreen, said that Sarasota’s fertilizer ban, passed in 2007, had done nothing to fix the runoff problem and only increased the number of uncertified lawn operators.

“What I have noticed is uncertified operators out there everyday, we see a big increase on them. Basically taking our jobs because we can’t say the lawn needs fertilizer anymore. The ban in the summertime is the wrong way to go, everybody has unlicensed trucks, unmarked trucks. This is what is going to happen in Hillsborough County in the summer. “

Concerned citizens, environmentalist and scientists supporting the ban claimed that purely voluntary efforts to reduce the problem would be unsuccessful and research supporting arguments made by fertilizer representatives should be questioned due to financial interests. Howard Johnston is a resident of Temple Terrace.

“I’ve been sitting here listening to the presentations, they are running about 10 to 1 by individuals who make their living by putting fertilizers on the ground. Quite frankly, some of the research that has been quoted is pretty impressive. I also know that research on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico told us there was no problem, nothing to worry about. I also know that we were assured that the solutions to the problem should they occur were ready and obvious and easily in access. We’ve come to understand that is nonsense. Part of my argument here today is that virtually everyone in this room making a presentation is paid either to do so or paid at the time they are doing so.”

Mike Holsinger, a former Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension director in Sarasota County, said that limiting fertilizer application is the only true way to reduce harmful algal blooms.

“The turf as a filter for nitrogen is really not effective as a real world situation, isn’t reflective of real world situations. Here is the rest of the story you may not hear about. Most lawns in the real world have bare spots and thin spots. Most of our landscapes are on compacted soil. Most grass is surrounded by impervious surfaces. All of the above contribute to runoff and runoff carries pollution. Every fertilizer application is a potential pollution event and to reduce potential pollution we need to reduce the frequency of application of our fertilizers.”

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, over 70% of waterways in Hillsborough County are considered impaired. The ordinance hopes to reduce this number and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program has estimated that 84 tons of nitrogen could be eliminated if all governments in the Bay region passed similar ordinances and half of the residents comply. After over hours of public comment, County Commissioners decided 6-to-1 that they needed more time and scheduled the final vote on the ordinance for July 15. Jim Norman voted against the continuance.

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