Summertime fertilizer ban remains in place after turf groups pressure leaders

A literal turf war over a 2011 fertilizer ordinance fizzled out after Manatee County (FL) commissioners narrowly decided not to change the rule.

The way the ordinance is now, and how it will remain, bans nitrogen fertilizer from June 1 through Sept. 30, prohibits phosphorus year-round unless the soil has been tested and deemed deficient and requires that all granular fertilizers need to have more than 50 percent slow-release nitrogen.

In a work session Tuesday, leaders heard from either side of the struggle: Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department outlined that the ordinance was put in place to limit nitrogen runoff into stormwater, while turf and fertilizer proponents wanted to ease the restrictions to allow licensed lawn care professionals to practice during the summer.
The county adopted the ordinance based off a Tampa Bay Estuary Program model from 2008. Excess nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus can contribute to the growth of certain kinds of algae, which in turn leads to damaged seagrass beds and depleted oxygen levels that contribute to fish kills. “We’re not the only ones who are struggling with these issues,” said Rob Brown, division manager with the parks department.

The ordinance acts as a preventative measure and a way to educate residents. Once the damage is done, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimates the costs to remove nitrogen and phosphorus can be about $3,300 per pound per year and $11,000 per pound per year, respectively.

Environmental Research and Education Foundation consultant Mac Carraway said the group, which represents organizations like the Florida Turfgrass Association and Turfgrass Producers of Florida, supports “fair, evidence-based efforts to manage fertilizer responsibly and to highlight false narratives.”

Carraway added that the ordinance “compels people to apply fertilizer in periods of dormancy,” or when grass isn’t active.

One piece of misinformation, said TruGreen representative Todd Josco, was that Indian River Lagoon algal blooms were related to fertilizer, when it was septic tanks. A study presented by the Indian River Lagoon Symposium in February suggested that ammonia, a form of nitrogen found in sewage, gave rise to the blooms, according to the Treasure Coast Palm. Indian River County also has a fertilizer ban.

Taken by the septic tank detail, Commissioner Betsy Benac asked why the UF/IFAS extension wasn’t taking a position on either side. Parks director Charlie Hunsicker said that the extension has taken several sides, because there are so many variables in the environment that will affect the end result.

Josco added that he wasn’t against fertilizer ordinances as a whole, but the issue at hand was properly applied fertilizer. Therefore, he said, licensed professionals should be exempt from the ban.

At one point, Commissioner Robin DiSabatino interrupted the presentation, apparently baffled by what the men were saying.

“This is getting out of hand,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of information that is misinformation.”

Chairwoman Priscilla Whisenant Trace said she had a long conversation with Hunsicker and Brown about the proposal.

“We all want to protect water. The worst thing you can do is not fertilize in June, July, August and September,” said Trace, an agriculturalist.

It’s “like telling a hibernating bear you can only get to eat when you’re sleeping,” she added.

Since an official vote couldn’t take place during the work session, a consensus was recorded: Chairwoman Trace as well as Commissioners Benac and Vanessa Baugh were in the minority, wanting to move the proposal to a public meeting for an official vote. – BY HANNAH MORSE, hemorse@bradenton.com