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Hamptons Life

Mar 3, 2009 11:05 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

New fertilizer setback requirement to become law

Mar 3, 2009 11:05 AM

The health of Suffolk County’s marine environment trumps the aesthetics of lush green lawns, according to Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.

Last month the Sag Harbor-based lawmaker introduced a bill—adopted by a wide margin by the legislature—that prohibits residents from using fertilizer within 20 feet of a natural water body.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy has until Friday, March 6, to sign or veto the bill, number IR1894-2008. At press time, Mr. Levy’s spokesman, Dan Aug, said the county executive supports the new legislation..

Only Mr. Levy’s veto could kill the bill, which will apply to all Suffolk County residents—not just commercial operations. If Mr. Levy signs the bill, or takes no action before March 6, then it will become law, effective immediately.

The purpose of the setback requirement, Mr. Schneiderman said, is to prevent fertilizer run-off into wetlands. The chemicals in fertilizer, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, pose hazards to wetlands because they stimulate algae growth. Algal blooms can create brown tides, which have been linked to marked reductions in the county’s shellfish population.

The legislator said that no fertilizers are exempt from the 20-foot ban, including organic varieties. “There’s a misconception that organic is better. But chemicals are chemicals,” he said. “Horse manure is terrible for our bays and harbors.”

Though violators of the law will be subject to a penalty of up to $1,000 per violation, Mr. Schneiderman acknowledged the law will be difficult to enforce. “We’re trying to raise awareness that this is sound policy and hoping for voluntary compliance. Residents and neighbors need to be aware of, and will hopefully report, those who do not follow the law,” he said.

The legislator pointed out that commercial landscapers are licensed through the county. He said he could envision a scenario in which repeat offenders could jeopardize their licenses. “The law is the law. We have to put our environment over lush, green lawns.”

Though Mr. Schneiderman predicted the measure would provide added protection to the county’s water bodies, he said he would have liked to see more protection for the environment.

“I wanted 100 feet,” he said. “But 20 was all I could get ... But that’s better than zero.”

For all the support expressed so far, the bill is not without detractors. Pat Voges, head of government affairs for the Nassau Suffolk Landscapers Gardeners Association in Brightwaters, said he thinks the added regulations are unnecessary. “Jay keeps trying these different environmental laws that are already preempted by the state,” Mr. Voges said. “We already have enough rules and regulations regarding designated wetlands. I think he’s doing this for publicity.”

In response to Mr. Voges’s criticism, Mr. Schneiderman countered that “we all have to make tough decisions.” He added that protecting the water bodies was not only sound policy for the environment, but good for the economy.

“A lot of people make their living off of our bays and harbors. A homogeneous green lawn is not a natural state,” he said.

Mr. Schneiderman, whose South Fork district includes many waterfront homes, said other districts within the county are not as environmentally sensitive. “Many of the environmental concerns in other districts are not as bad as ours,” he said.

To further strengthen the setback requirements, Mr. Schneiderman said he is looking to draft legislation that would permit the spreading of only “coastal blend” fertilizers—or those that contain a low percentage of chemicals. “The 20-foot ban would stay,” he said. “And then after that you would only be allowed to use these more environmentally friendly blends.”

According to the legislator, these mixes are formulated to be less soluble so they do not run off and enter the stream as easily as traditional fertilizers.

Just as fertilizers enhance the growth of plants and lawns, they also spur the growth of algae, Mr. Schneiderman said. Algae in turn deprives the water of oxygen and shades bottom plants, which serve as safe habitat for marine life, blocking much needed sunlight. “This is a step toward restoring the ecological health of our bays,” he said of the bill.

This is not the first step the county has taken to protect its waterways, according to Mr. Schneiderman. In December 2007 the legislature established restrictions on residential fertilizer applications from November to April in order to protect water quality.

In 1970, the county became the first in the nation to prohibit the use of laundry detergents containing phosphates, Mr. Schneiderman said. “This continues a long history of Suffolk County showing leadership on environmental policy.”

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OK - I understand about the effects of nitrogen and other components of fertilizer. It is a little disturbing that this ban would be imposed without some other solution available other than letting our lawns die. When phosphates were banned there were non-phosphate detergents available. Suburbanites are not going to let their lawns die and will continure to use these harmful chimicals. Perhaps it would have been better to ban some of the more harmful chemicicals in favor of the more eco friendly ...more
By Dr Doug (1), Oakdale on Mar 4, 09 9:13 AM
i am just sooooo happy to see that people think it is more important to have green grass than clear water. you landscapers that are against helping to keep our land and bays chemical free are greedy and you should be ashamed of yourselves.
By local (106), north sea on Mar 9, 09 9:41 PM