Maryland lawmakers eye lawn fertilizer limits

Legislation would restrict products and application to help Chesapeake Bay

  • Left to right, Matt Wagner, sales, and Brian Brannan, garden shop manager, arrange bags of phosphorus-free fertilizer on the shelves at Valley View Farms.
Left to right, Matt Wagner, sales, and Brian Brannan, garden… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 08, 2011|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

The struggle to save the Chesapeake Bay is hitting home, quite literally, as lawmakers in Annapolis eye new regulation of lawn fertilizer — and how and when it can be applied.

Homeowners and lawn-care companies alike could face new rules on fertilizing lawns under state legislation aimed at enlisting city dwellers and suburbanites in the bay cleanup.

Bills heard Tuesday by a Senate committee would require reductions in the amount of plant nutrients in lawn fertilizer and tighten regulation of commercial lawn-care businesses. One measure that has the backing of both environmentalists and industry would set limits for the first time on the dates and manner in which do-it-yourselfers can try to keep their grass green and growing.

That's just fine with William Valentine, owner of Forever Green Landscaping in Parkville, who says lawn-care professionals like him are already taking precautions to protect the bay from excess fertilizer getting applied and then washing off yards into nearby streams.

"It's more about educating the homeowners," Valentine said. "We're not going to put down more than we need to put down. … I know some homeowners who are putting down fertilizer every month, twice as much as we are."

Under the most comprehensive of a trio of bills, homeowners would be barred from putting fertilizer on their lawns before March 1 or after Nov. 15 — or whenever the ground is frozen. Nor could any be spread within 10 or 15 feet of a stream or lake, depending on how it's applied.

The same rules would apply to lawn-care companies, except they'd have an extra two weeks in the fall — until Dec. 1 — to feed their customers' grass.

There's no penalty proposed if a homeowner ignores the limits, but errant lawn-care workers could face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense, and up to twice that for repeat violations.

Proponents hope one or more of the bills would help set new lawn care standards that would help reduce the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizer getting into the bay, where they contribute to the growth of massive algae blooms and the formation of a vast "dead zone" every summer.

"Somebody might think, 'Oh, it's just the sewage plants and the farmers'" polluting the bay, said Jenn Aiosa, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. While those are major sources of the bay's water woes, she said, "it's also the homeowners, the suburbanites, the golf courses. Everybody's going to have a role to play," she added, if the bay is to be restored.

There's more land in turf grass in the bay region than is devoted to raising corn, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In Maryland, where lawns cover an estimated 1 million acres or more, about 14 percent of the nitrogen and 8 percent of the phosphorus comes from urban and suburban land, said Ann Swanson, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.

The commission, a tri-state body of lawmakers dedicated to restoring the bay, is pressing for lawn-fertilizer regulation in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler is backing a pair of bills that would remove phosphorus from fertilizer sold for maintaining lawns and reduce the nitrogen content as well, but they don't directly address application practices.

Virginia's legislature has already adopted a measure banning phosphorus in lawn fertilizer, effective December 2013. Swanson estimated that a similar ban in Maryland would achieve a fifth of the phosphorus reduction the state needs to make to meet its obligations under the bay "pollution diet" imposed by EPA a few months ago.

Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the nation's top seller of consumer lawn care products, and Pennsylvania fertilizer manufacturer Lebanon Seaboard Corp., agreed several years ago to voluntarily reduce the phosphorus level of the products they sell in the bay region. But the legislation pending in Annapolis would apply universally.

"It makes it law that there'll be no phosphorus [in lawn fertilizer] unless you can prove a need," said Chris Wible, Scotts' director of environmental stewardship. The only time phosphorus is needed is when new grass is seeded or when a lawn needs repair, experts say.

Legislation would also limit the nitrogen content in lawn fertilizer, Wible said, requiring changes in the formulation of products made for sale to consumers in the bay region.

Fertilizer makers and lawn-care companies negotiated with environmental activists on the bay commission bill, and won changes that industry representatives say give them needed flexibility. For that reason, they're backing that bill and not the two supported by the attorney general.

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