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Manatee County formally opposes House fertilizer bill

MANATEE -- Manatee County officials are opposing a state legislative bill they say would severely weaken their ability to manage harmful effects of nutrients in fertilizer.

The Board of County Commissioners agreed Tuesday to send letters to members of the local legislative delegation and other key lawmakers as a means of taking a formal stance against House Bill 421, proposed for passage during the 2012 Florida Legislature.

The county contends the bill would allow people to circumvent stricter local ordinances.

“Our primary concern with the bill is the state certification requirement, which ultimately would enable local applicators to circumvent local ordinances,” it said.

“Fertilizer ordinances provide local governments one of the few tools we have to prevent pollution and address nutrient impairments,” said the letter, which was signed by Commission Chairman Carol Whitmore.

Last spring, the board adopted an ordinance regulating fertilizer use in order to help prevent algal blooms, fish kills and water quality impairment of lakes, streams and rivers, and bays.

The county ordinance includes a “blackout period” during the rainy season, during which certain types of nitrogen-based fertilizers may not be applied to lawns; but the ordinance exempts farms, vegetable gardens, athletic fields and golf courses.

The House bill is sponsored by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee and Jimmie T. Smith, R-Inverness.

Smith contended in a telephone interview Tuesday that his bill would supply enforcement where currently local governments have none.

“We have no example where people have had an enforceable ordinance,” Smith said, adding that many counties and municipalities that passed stricter ordinances could produce no examples of arrests or fines levied for noncompliance.

Manatee County has not officially implemented its ordinance, but when it does, “we do have enforcement provisions,” said Charlie Hunsicker, county director of natural resources.

Still, county officials prefer the role of educators rather than enforcers, he said.

Hunsicker hopes to offer educational and certification programs for commercial applicators, and voluntary educational resources for retail outlets, so homeowners get the best information.

“We want to have those available to consumers who purchase fertilizers in Manatee County stores,” Hunsicker said.

Commissioner Michael Gallen also defended the county’s ordinance, arguing that its key is the “blackout period,” during which even professional applicators can’t legally apply certain types of fertilizers.

“This bill would totally gut all that,” Gallen said of the House proposal. “It would allow a commercial applicator to pay a small fee and read a book to get certified, and then they can still apply it year-round; when it rains, it goes into our water supply.”

“I think it all comes down to locality -- we know what’s best in our region,” he added. “I think the locals know what’s best, and the state government shouldn’t be loosening our regulations we feel are best for our region.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031.