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Annual 6-month fertilizer ban pondered

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of November 10, 2011)

The Vero Beach City Council has temporarily backed off a proposed ordinance that would ban the use of phosphorus in fertilizers and impose a blackout period of June 1 through Nov. 30 during which no fertilizer could be applied by lawn services and turf companies.

But the ordinance, proposed by Vice Mayor Pilar Turner as a way of decreasing the runoff of nutrients into the Indian River lagoon, doesn’t seem likely to go away, despite warnings from turf professionals that the blackout period would cripple small businesses and seriously undermine efforts to keep lawns and golf courses lush and green.

“It’s time for Vero Beach to take the lead in trying to save our waterway,” Turner said.

Vero Planning Director Tim McGarry based Vero’s draft ordinance on one passed by the town of Sewall’s Point, with modifications to conform to the structure of a model ordinance handed down by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in August 2010 as a guideline for municipalities and counties to enact.

Indian River County local governments are required to pass an ordinance matching or exceeding the FDEP regulations because the entities lie on the Indian River Lagoon – a waterway which was deemed to be impaired by nutrients. The six-month ban on commercial and institutional application is more stringent than the statewide policy.

Numerous turf and golf experts told the council that the summer months are the growth season for grass and that banning fertilizing from June to November would not only damage lawns and golf courses, but cripple the businesses who manage turf for a living.

Shane Wright, who manages the Vero Beach Country Club golf course, said the ordinance – unless it exempts the city’s golf courses – would severely hamper his ability to maintain and cultivate the greens.

“During June, that’s when we do all of our projects,” Wright said, explaining that golf courses like to apply fertilizer under new sod, which is normally installed over the summer so it’s well established when the bulk of the golfers return at the start of season.

One of the main arguments was that commercial fertilizer applicators are well-trained and, as a matter of economics, do not apply more product than will be used by the grass. Another argument made by the golf professionals was that, in the constant effort to avoid slow greens, golf courses apply the bare minimum of fertilizer.

“Golf course superintendents, we don’t like a lot of nitrogen. It’s not us, it’s our golfers,” Wright said. “If you’ve ever played golf, you know that people don’t like slow greens. What causes slow greens? Excess nitrogen.”

Representatives from The Moorings Club and John’s Island also spoke, as did managers from TruGreen, Bugmaster and Scott’s. All the professionals urged basically the same thing -- don’t impose the six-month ban on fertilizer or you’ll hurt local businesses and hurt the root systems of the grass which filter pollutants from waterways.

“That is the time of growth, that is the time for us to put carbohydrates and to grow the turf so it’s strong enough to get through the wintertime,” said Greg Finnegar, golf course manager at John’s Island. “I’m also talking about home lawns. If you take that away, we’re not going to have strong enough turf for when our residents come back or when our golfers come back.”

“You’re going to limit play, you’re going to limit jobs. The turf industry, not only the golf industry is a very large industry in the state of Florida, so we have to be very careful in what we’re doing,” Finnegar said.

The council consensus was to bring the commercial applicators and golf course managers in, as City Manager Jim O’Connor said, to “take the ordinance and sort of adjust it to what we need in Vero Beach.”

Riomar Golf Club Superintendent James Callahan read into the record a requirement that, if the city wishes to enact a more stringent ordinance than the state statute, it must place the proposed ordinance on file with the appropriate division of the University of Florida. It’s unclear why the city staff had not discovered and met that requirement.

“That’s the kind of input we need and that’s why we’re happy you guys are here,” said Councilman Craig Fletcher.

O’Connor asked the council for time to “touch base with everybody” and to make sure Vero is in compliance and addressed the local businesses and golf course managers’ concerns.

Councilwoman Tracy Carroll cautioned the council that in the process of hammering out a compromise, it should not wind up taking no action.

“The city council is really listening to not only the needs of our environment and the environments that have spoken to us, but also the industry,” said Carroll. “It’s very easy for the City Council to accept the status quo -- that’s the easiest method.”

“We’d like to move forward with something that can help,” Carroll said, adding that if the bans and blackout dates are not proven to help, that the city needs to take a harder look at the data. “It’s important to have all the sides of it.”

After the meeting, Councilman Brian Heady said he was pleased the council pulled back on what he felt was a reactionary measure, in response to maps showing red, critical areas in the lagoon and “dead zones” in the county’s inland waterways.

“I just want the experts in the industry to have some input in this, I think government needs to stay out of these silly regulations,” Heady said. “It’s not fertilizer the residents putting on their lawns that’s killing the lagoon.  It’s pumping the water through the canals into the lagoon that’s killing the lagoon. The problem isn’t the homeowner trying to keep his grass green.”

The proposed ordinance does not require homeowners to be certified or to obtain a permit to apply fertilizer, but city officials said they hoped passage of the ordinance would serve to educate homeowners about fertilizer runoff and encourage them to use slow-release nitrogen fertilizer and not apply fertilizer at all when it’s likely to be washed into waterways.

“What makes the blackout months so bad is the rainy season is when you need the fertilizer,” Heady said. “But that’s typical government where governing officials get way into the weeds where they don’t know what they’re talking about.”