Lawn fertilizer limits become law
Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law today legislation that limits both the content and the application of fertilizer for urban and suburban lawns, a measure supporters say should help rescue the Chesapeake Bay from the nutrient pollution fouling its water.
Touted by proponents as the most comprehensive regulation of lawn care in the Bay region, if not the nation, the law bars phosphorus in any fertilizer except those meant to boost growth of new or repaired lawns. It also limits nitrogen content.
The measure further restricts when and where homeowners and lawn-care outfits can apply fertilizer - specifying, for instance, that none is to be sprayed or spread within 10 to 15 feet of water, depending on how it's applied.
The law bars any local fertilizer bans or regulations, and would appear to invalidate the restrictions in force since 2009 in Annapolis, the only municipality or county to enact any. But proponents say the application limits in the statewide law essentially mirror the Annapolis ones, except for that city's requirement that merchants selling fertilizer post a sign urging customers not to overapply it.
Under the state law, lawns are not to be fertilized before March 1 or after Nov. 15, though lawn-care outfits get a couple more weeks in the fall than do-it-yourselfers. The paid applicators can keep working to Dec. 1, as long as they're using
spraying liquid "fast-release" plant food. (CORRECTION: Mark Schlossberg of the Maryland Association of Green Industries says it comes in granular and liquid form.)
Lawn-care professionals also get latitude to continue applying "natural organic" or "organic" fertilizer containing phosphorus, though beginning in 2013 the amount of that plant nutrient would also be limited and couldn't be applied at all to lawns where tests show the soil already has plenty of phosphorus.
But people paid to apply fertilizer would be required to undergo training and obtain certification from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, much as pest-control workers are now.
State officials predict that the law should reduce the overall amount of phosphorus getting into Maryland's portion of the bay by 3 percent. They say they don't have a handle yet on how much nitrogen might be kept out of the water. But it's estimated that 14 percent of the nitrogen and 8 percent of the phosphorus polluting the bay comes from urban and suburban land, much of it fertilizer washed off by rain.
Though the law would make a relatively small dent in the bay's overall pollution problem, it's an important one, if only politically. Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance noted that Maryland's farmers have been under increasing regulation over the years, and this measure addresses a source of water problems largely ignored until now. The state has 1.1 million acres in turfgrass, he pointed out, nearly as much land as farmers use for growing crops.
"This is an opportunity for homeowners to do their share," said Del. James Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat who introduced HB573 on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay Commission. The commission, representing lawmakers from Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, pushed the states to adopt lawn fertilizer limits this year. Virginia enacted curbs on phosphorus, and legislation is now being drafted in Pennsylvania.
Any person who violates the law's restrictions on fertilizing lawns can be fined up to $1,000 for a first offense, and up to $2,000 for each repeat infraction. But Ann P. Swanson, the bay commission's executive director, said she believes the law's main impact will come from fertilizer manufacturers reducing the nutrient content of their products.
Chris J. Wible, director of environmental stewardship for Scotts Miracle-Gro Company, a leading lawn products seller, noted that his firm and another had voluntarily agreed to reduce the phosphorus content of their lawn fertilizer years ago. With this legislation in the works and similar curbs being discussed up and down the East Coast, Scotts announced earlier this year it would make all its lawn fertilizer products sold nationally phosphorus-free by 2012.
As for ensuring that homeowners heed the application limits, the bay commisson's Swanson said that would come from people learning about the need to change their lawn-care habits, rather than from any enforcement crackdown. There was no additional money budgeted to enforce this law, nor were any extra funds provided for carrying out the public education campaign the law calls for, according to Hance, the state agriculture secretary.
Swanson said people themselves would have to make sure the law is followed, much as public pressure discourages littering. "We're really going to have to rely on one neighbor helping another," she said.
(Top: A Perry Hall lawn being fertilized, Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis; Bottom: Notice posted on fertilizer display at Annapolis TrueValue hardware store, photo by Tim Wheeler)