The Hernando County Board of County Commissioners discussed changes to the county’s fertilizer ordinance for nearly three hours on Sept. 1, 2020, in a public workshop. The changes to the fertilizer ordinance were requested by the Hernando County Association of Realtors and would further restrict fertilizer application by homeowners during the summer months. During this time, homeowners would have the option of hiring a professional company to properly assess lawn conditions and apply fertilizer.
The current ordinance prohibits fertilizer applications during a flood watch or warning, tropical storm watch or warning, hurricane watch or warning. It also prohibits fertilizer application prior to seeding or sodding a site and for the first 30 days after seeding/sodding. Additionally, from January 1 through March 31, the season of plant dormancy, only trained/certified/registered professional applicators can apply fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus. There are also fertilizer free zones identified in the ordinance where fertilizer shall not be applied within 10 feet of the top of any bank, stream, pond, wetland, etc…
The changes to the fertilizer ordinance is an effort to reduce nitrogen concentrations in the Weeki Wachee River Basin as mandated by the state. The thought is that reducing a portion of nitrogen from fertilizer runoff through regulations would be a money saver since the other option, septic to sewer conversion is quite costly for residents and the county alike.
The Hernando County Association of Realtors provided the following statement on their reasons for the ordinance change request:
“Under state mandate, Hernando County government and its citizens must take action to mitigate environmental issues regarding the water quality of Weeki Wachee Basin. The state has required increased septic tank regulations that will put an unfair financial burden on properties less than an acre in size. It is critical that community leaders look at all options to provide financial relief to the homeowners immediately effected. The cost of homeownership is directly tied to the economic vitality of Hernando County.”
The Hernando County Association of Realtors recommends,
“Update the current Hernando County fertilizer ordinance to address residential fertilizer. Specifically, when fertilizer is sold and when it can be applied. The current ordinance does little to protect the springs from fertilizer runoff. Addressing the residential fertilizer ordinance will decrease the nitrogen loads in Weeki Wachee and increase the likelihood of funding from state government for the most cost-effective option to fix the Weeki Wachee septic issue, septic to sewer conversion.”
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA PRESENTATION
The University of Florida Associate Professor/ Extension Turfgrass Specialist, Dr. Laurie E. Trenholm, delivered a presentation on the biological factors of fertilizer application. During her presentation, she stated that currently there is little research to suggest that a fertilizer ban during the summer months would reduce nitrogen leachate. She also stated that Hernando County’s current ordinance “follows the science.” Trenholm warned that the county should be careful not to over restrict property owners because that will lead to people fertilizing outside of allowed time periods which could be detrimental. Some properties with sandy soil may need the boost and could suffer dieback. She did remark that the ordinance could restrict homeowners during the summer months, but she said that they should have the option of hiring a professional to apply fertilizer according to their best judgment.
Trenholm began her presentation with an explanation of warm-season grasses that experience rapid growth in the summer months coinciding with ample rainfall. She pointed out that the above-ground growth mirrors what is happening below ground in the root system.
She explained further, “In terms of the grasses’ ability to take up nutrients, water, anything that we apply to it, it’s much enhanced this time of year (summer) so we do not support fertilization in north or central Florida throughout the winter months because the grass is not growing and you can make the argument that it doesn’t need it.”
She also explained, “We lose a big chunk of that root system. Our warm-season grasses can slough off 50 to 60 percent of the root system pretty easily (in winter).”
When the root system is diminished in winter months, the grass is not able to take up fertilizer efficiently which will lead to greater amounts of nitrogen leaching into the water basin.
In her presentation, Trenholm, writes, “UF‐IFAS research overwhelmingly shows that when applied to healthy, actively growing turf, very little nitrate leaches from the system. UF‐IFAS recommended fertilizer rates help maintain turf health and limit nitrate leaching.
Additionally, she concludes there is, “No data currently to support reduced nitrate loading where summertime fertilizer bans in place.”
Overwatering and mowing often are two ”prime” reasons for poor lawn health, Trenholm says.
Allocco questioned whether any counties take fertilizers off the shelf during the months when fertilizer application was prohibited in the county.
He also stated, “The bottom line is that we’re being stuck as a county at looking at septic to sewer, which is a huge cost and frankly all these little things to me, in the end, are annoyances, but if those annoyances can reduce the amount of pain that comes from a septic to sewer transition…
I don’t think it’s death by a thousand paper cuts at this point. It’s a few paper cuts, but it’s nothing compared to what the cost of septic to sewer transition. That’s my mindset right now -what can we do so that you can see some significant changes over the next, five to ten years so that we don’t bankrupt the community that already gets upset if they’re trash goes up a dollar a year.”
Chairman Mitten asked Trenholm when would be the appropriate time to fertilize in order to have a nice looking lawn and reduce nitrogen leachate.
She said that the first fertilizer application shouldn’t occur before April. She recommended April or May and then again in September. In October, grass begins to lose its root system.
She said a fertilizer application could potentially occur in the summer dependent on the property conditions but at a very low rate of nitrogen.
She did say that in the fall you could apply a 1:1 nitrogen to potassium fertilizer. “Potassium is not a pollutant but it does provide some cold tolerance. When we have these fluctuations like we have in the winter, it’s up and down, that’s hard on a lot of our plant growth… overall potassium imparts some stress tolerance to many things.” She emphasized that potassium is not a pollutant and she recommends a one-to-one ratio of nitrogen to potassium because plants do need the nitrogen as well unless the plant is able to get enough from the soil.
During the discussion, there were some questions about whether or not the ordinance should be changed at all since Trenholm said there isn’t any data to support a fertilizer ban in the summer months.
Providing clarification, she stated that Citrus and Hernando County fertilizer ordinances both currently “follow the science.”
Commissioner Champion had concerns relating to Saint Augustine grass (Floratam), which is a common warm-season grass in Florida.
“I don’t think Floratam should be planted here,” Champion said at one point during the discussion, reasoning that it requires too much water, and Hernando County restricts watering to once a week.
Trenholm advised that Floratam should be watered once a week in the winter and twice a week in the summer if it’s dry. More than that should not be needed. She also said that overwatering Floratam is a common problem and it is a Florida-Friendly plant.
She said that organic matter could be applied to sandy soils during the construction phase prior to the sod going down in order to give the soil better water holding and nutrient holding capacity.
Going forward, staff will work on options for changes to the current ordinance and bring those back to the commission for future discussion at a board meeting.
Rogers summed up further action his staff is taking on Sept. 8, saying that he’s bringing back options to the BOCC which include further restricting the number of months residents can apply fertilizer to a couple months in the spring and a couple months in the fall.
He also said that they will be considering the landscape code for sod with high water requirements. They will review the types of sod allowed and consider rebates for residents that do not use sod with high watering requirements.
Finally, staff will review options for limiting fertilizer applications to waterfront properties.