State Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto (Pic by Meredith Geddings, via myfloridahouse.gov)

A Florida House subcommittee this morning advanced House Bill 421, a measure that would allow those who have obtained a “limited certification for urban landscape commercial fertilizer application” to be exempt from local fertilizer regulations. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto, has come under fire for taking power away from local communities.

The issue of fertilizer application in Florida has been a contentious one for years — particularly with environmental groups, who argue that the nutrients contained in fertilizers are detrimental to water quality across the state. On Monday, the Sierra Club held demonstrations against Smith’s bill in several cities.

The bill’s detractors are particularly worried that it would eliminate the effectiveness of many local urban fertilizer ordinances — like one that bans the use of fertilizer during a four-month rainy season.

Theresa Connor, director of environmental utilities in Sarasota Bay, spoke about that particular provision during this morning’s committee meeting, arguing that nitrogen runoff from fertilizers is the largest source of pollution in Sarasota Bay. “Sarasota is on its way to restoring scallops in the bay … for the first time since the 1950s,” she said, adding that passage of Smith’s bill could hinder that.

But some of the bill’s supporters, like state Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, argued that if the use of reclaimed water (which also contains nutrients) is allowed during rainy season, fertilizer shouldn’t necessarily be banned either.

“If we’re going to say it’s OK for cities and counties to use reclaimed water … during blackouts, then shouldn’t it be OK for other entities to put nitrogen and phosphorus down on grass?” he asked his committee members. “If we’re going to say that two plus two equals four, than it equals four for both municipalities and commercial applicators.”

State Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, called that argument a “red herring,” arguing that reclaimed water isn’t actually used that much during rainy seasons.

“As far as reclaimed water, they don’t really spray that much during the wet season … because users dont want it, because it’s raining. … That’s a bit of a red herring as well,” said Randolph. “If we are going to exempt professional applicators, have we really set a standard for professionalism that would really be cost effective?”

Randolph went on to argue that removing some of the options of local governments would force them to turn to other, more expensive, alternatives.

“When you start taking things off the table for the governments, you’re going to remove the way they do things in the most cost-effective manner,” he said, adding that municipalities could be “forced to move to more expensive measures” like capital stormwater projects. ”If there’s tax increases going forward, we were the cause of those tax increases.”

Further, argued Randolph, the “limited certification” doesn’t necessarily ensure that applicators will do the job correctly. “If we’re going to exempt professional applicators … do we really have a system in place to ensure that our standards are high enough … to ensure that people really have the ability to carry out this function?”

At least two committee members — state Reps. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, and Frederick Costello,R-DeLand — said that, while they didn’t find the bill perfect, they would support it, anyway.

“I don’t necessarily love your bill, Rep. Smith, but I think it is at least worthy of being considered as it goes through this process,” Hooper said. “I’m going to support your bill, and reserve the right that somewhere down the road I might not support it.”

Costello also voted in favor of the bill, but said he hadn’t heard enough about its scientific merits.

According to state Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach, lawmakers shouldn’t vote for bills if they have reservations.

“I find it kind of amazing [that] if we have a product that we’re unsatisfied with, we vote for it, hoping we can change it down the road,” said Julien. “That’s called kicking the can. … [Either] you vote against it, or try to fix it.”

Julien remained opposed to the bill.

State Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, who said he had been convinced of the merits of the bill by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, argued that perhaps there should be a “new invention” to lessen the effects of fertilizer on waterbodies.

“Perhaps a device [could be] installed at stormwater catch basins that would remove nitrogen, phosphorus — recapture them and turn them into a marketable product for other entities,” Van Zant said.

The bill passed in a 9-6 vote.

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