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Hernando County enacts new lawn fertilizer rules in advance of possible state preemptions

 fertilizing a lawn
Lawn fertilizer

The restrictions ban application of lawn fertilizer in the summer and winter months, and extends the rules to commercial lawn applications, as well as to homeowners.

Hernando County on Tuesday passed one of the strictest summer fertilizer bans in the state. It happened just before Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to act on a provision from the state legislature that would ban cities and counties from changing their restrictions.

County Commissioners voted to allow fertilizer to be applied only half the year. It's intended to reduce the amount of nutrients that flow into areas such as the county's Gulf Coast shore and rivers such as the Weeki Wachee, which have seen algae blooms caused by too many nutrients.

It would ban the application of fertilizer in both the summer and winter, or when the ground is saturated. And it would extend the rules to commercial lawn-care businesses, as well as homeowners.

Commission Chairman John Allocco alluded to the need to act now, before the governor does.

"I think it's better for us at this point to get this in place, and we can always come back in the future - depending on what the state does - if we need to tweak it," he said.

An item in the state appropriations budget now sitting on the governor's desk wouldpreempt local governmentsfrom adopting new bans or changing any existing ones.

Michael McGrath is with the Sierra Club's Florida chapter. He pushed for changesthe board chose not to adopt, including requiring at least half of nitrogen fertilizer being applied in a slow-release formula to avoid runoff into waterways.

"They've been doing this in Sarasota County since 2007. It's been adopted by many municipalities and counties throughout the entire state. There's no reason why Hernando County can't have this in their ordinance as well."

Gene Kelly of the Florida Native Plant Society also lobbied for inclusion of mandating slow-release formula to avoid runoff into waterways.

"The whole idea of these ordinances is to rein in nutrient pollution. That's what we want to accomplish," he said. "It doesn't work if the result is a bunch of dissatisfied homeowners because they have nutrient-starved lawns. And that is really what that 50 percent requirement for slow-release nitrogen is all about.. So that we can have an ordinance like this, reduce nutrient pollution and still have residents who are happy and content with the healthy condition of their lawn."

Still, McGrath said he was pleased with the commission's unanimous vote.

Here's some background on the new ordinance from Hernando County:

Weeki Wachee Springs is an Outstanding Florida Spring (OFS) that is impaired for nitrates, and the nitrate levels have been steadily increasing for many years. In 2016, the State enacted the Springs and Aquifer Protection Act that set goals to restore the OFS within 20 years.

In 2018, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection established a Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) to address the increasing nitrate levels in the spring and identify the major contributing sources for nitrogen into the spring. Per the BMAP, 22% of the nitrogen affecting the spring is caused from urban turf fertilizers.

On May 2, 2023, the Board of County Commissioners held a workshop to discuss making changes to the fertilizer ordinance adopted in 2013. Staff was directed to develop an ordinance to amend the current County code that regulates the use of fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus.

Some notable changes are as follows:

  • Expand the seasonal restrictions to prohibit the use of urban turf fertilizers containing nitrogen from December 15 to March 15 and from June 1 to September 30.
  • Remove the exemption for commercial applicators.
  • Increase the distance that fertilizers can be used adjacent to wetlands and surface waters to 25 feet.
  • Require businesses that sell fertilizers during the restriction period to post County provided signage stating the restrictions.
Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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