Lawn care industry wanted to overturn ordinance aimed at storm runoff

MANATEE COUNTY — Although they could not take a formal voice vote, most members of the Manatee County Commission indicated Tuesday they are satisfied with a nearly 7-year-old law restricting summertime use of fertilizers — even though the lawn care industry considers it “arbitrary and certainly punitive.”

The ordinance is intended to reduce stormwater runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen during the rainy season. The pollutants contribute to algae growth and depletion of oxygen in waterways — which, in turn, can lead to fish kills and the destruction of vital seagrasses.

Representatives of the lawn care industry appealed to the commissioners to schedule a public hearing to review the ordinance and possibly enact changes granting more latitude to their profession.

They made their presentation during a work session in which commissioners could indicate their consensus opinion without taking a formal vote.

By raising their hands, four of the seven commissioners — Robin DiSabatino, Stephen Jonsson, Carol Whitmore and Charles Smith — indicated they prefer to leave the ordinance intact.

“I’m very upset this has even come forward,” Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said. “… We have it [an ordinance]. It’s working. Why change it?”

Commissioners Priscilla Whisenant Trace, Betsy Benac and Vanessa Baugh indicated they would favor at least discussing whether the ordinance needs to be updated.

“I’m not saying throw everything out,” said Trace, who is a tree farmer. Yet she said her customers complain about palm trees they have bought declining during the summers. “You need to have steady food for plants.”

Mac Carraway, a consultant on behalf of the Environmental Research and Education Foundation (which includes the lawn care industry among its representation), asked the County Commission to schedule a public hearing to at least consider revisions to the May 2011 ordinance.

“We’re in harmony with the ultimate objectives” of the local law, Carraway said.

Yet Carraway said the ordinance is “arbitrary and certainly punitive” toward lawn care professionals. He said the “summer blends” the industry is allowed to use are just “an aesthetic treatment” and are similar to feeding a family pet only dog biscuits for several months. The dog’s teeth may look fine but its body lacks proper nutrition, he noted.

The lawn care industry wants the county to consider some exceptions to the “blackout period” for its professionals. It notes that exceptions already apply to golf courses and sports fields because their managements are considered well trained in the proper application of fertilizers.

Dan Quattlebaum of East County Lawn Care said he thinks the blackout period contributes to the death of palm trees, which are treated with antibiotics in attempts to revive them but are not getting proper nutrients for several months. “They need to eat in the middle of the summer.”

Noting that sea grasses in Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay have rebounded since the adoption of local ordinances restricting fertilizer runoffs, county Parks and Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker and his staff strongly recommended keeping the existing law in place.

The ordinance applies to residential urban landscapes and states that:

• Granular fertilizer products must contain at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen.

• No nitrogen-containing fertilizers can be applied during the rainy season from June 1 to Sept. 30

• No phosphorus-containing fertilizers should be applied at any time of year without a soil test indicating a phosphorus deficiency.

Sarasota County passed a similar ordinance in 2007.

Although local fertilizer ordinances may not be the only reason, aerial surveys have shown that levels of seagrass in Sarasota Bay are steadily increasing — with more than 13,000 acres. That number has increased by 700 acres since 2012. But the bay's seagrass habitat has not always expanded. From 1950 to 1988, its seagrasses decreased by about 30 percent.

Michael Juchnowitz, owner of Venice-based Gardenmasters of SW Florida, said he provides lawn maintenance for 20,000 homes from Manatee south to Marco Island — including many maintained for homebuilding firms such as Medallion Home, Neal Communities, Lennar and others.

Juchnowitz, who describes himself as “a hopeless capitalist,” insisted that local seasonal fertilizer restrictions work and that, during the summers, his clients do not see “anemic lawns.”

Holly Greening, retired executive director of the Tampa Bay National Estuary Program, urged commissioners to keep the ordinance intact. She called it “the most cost-effective method” for the county to comply with federal and state environmental goals and regulations. “There’s every indication the current ordinance is working.”

Sierra Club spokeswoman Cris Costello said that organization “wholeheartedly” supports the county staff’s position. “We really believe this is no-brainer” considering the potential cost to taxpayers to restore area waterways.

“Where are the complaints?” Sandy Gilbert of Solutions to Avoid Red Tide (START) said of area homeowners. “The public is telling you it is working. ... Don’t go backward. Go forward. Stay the ordinance with no exceptions.”