Phil Villandry of Maine Hardware in Portland shows a bag of organic fertilizer that was on the shelf Tuesday. Maine Hardware started phasing out the availability of synthetic fertilizers around the time Portland restricted the use of synthetic pesticides, two years ago.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

An advisory committee that has led Portland’s effort to reduce the use of synthetic pesticides is now recommending that the city also ban the use of synthetic fertilizers on public and private property.

The recommendation comes two years after the state’s largest city banned most uses of synthetic pesticides and a few months after neighboring South Portland voted to restrict use of synthetic fertilizers as well as pesticides.

The recommendation was unanimously supported by Portland’s Pesticide Management Advisory Committee and is part of an annual report that will be presented to the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. That committee could develop an ordinance proposal to submit to the full council.

“Improper and excess use of fertilizers by homeowners and land care professionals results in excess nutrients entering local waterways (during) stormwater discharges. In Casco Bay we see this resulting in algal blooms, lower oxygen content in coastal waters and ocean acidification,” the committee wrote in its annual report.

Besides adding a synthetic fertilizer ban to the pesticide ordinance, the report recommends that the city work with neighboring communities to educate people about organic lawn care and boost education of pesticide applicators about signage requirements.

Two years ago, Portland enacted an ordinance that regulates pesticide use in an effort to protect natural resources and public health. Residents and city workers can no longer freely use synthetic pesticides except in limited circumstances, such as dealing with invasive insects. Violations of the ordinance can result in fines ranging from $100 to $500, although the city has focused on education in response to reports of violations.

Portland is not alone in developing land care ordinances that regulate pesticides or fertilizers in the community. Bans on applying fertilizers during summer months are common in Florida, where at least 90 towns and counties prohibit them during the rainiest time of year.

In 2015, Ogunquit residents approved an ordinance that banned the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on private property. Since then, many other communities in Maine have enacted rules and policies designed to monitor or restrict the use of pesticides.

Last March, Falmouth passed a pesticide and fertilizer ordinance that requires all professional applicators to register with the town and submit an annual usage report. The application of all synthetic and organic fertilizers is prohibited from Dec. 1 to March 31 because applying fertilizer when the ground is frozen causes more runoff into waterbodies, according to Ashley Krulik, the town’s sustainability coordinator.

Krulik said the town is reviewing 2020 applicator reports to better understand usage in Falmouth and is continuing to look at best practices from neighboring communities to determine if further guidelines should be put in place.

South Portland approved an ordinance in November that bans the use of synthetic fertilizers citywide for residential and commercial properties. The ordinance also limits the application of organic fertilizers to no more than twice a year. Users can apply for a waiver when putting in a new lawn or using performance turf on athletic fields. After a warning, violators face fines of up to $1,000.

Maine Hardware store, in the Union Station shopping plaza on St. John Street in Portland, started phasing out the availability of synthetic fertilizers around the same time that Portland restricted the use of synthetic pesticides. A customer can still place a special order for a synthetic fertilizer if they are willing to wait, but probably won’t be able to find any stocked on shelves at the store.

“We’ve already gotten rid of most of our synthetic products,” Tim Currier, Maine Hardware’s general manager, said on Tuesday. “We’re just trying to do the right thing for our community. We don’t stock any of those products anymore.”

Organic fertilizers are displayed below lawn seed on the shelves at Maine Hardware in Portland. Customers aren’t likely to find any synthetic fertilizers at the store.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Every so often, a customer will enter the store and will ask for synthetic fertilizer even though Maine Hardware sells organic fertilizers.

“Most people are supportive of using organic fertilizer, but there are others that want to buy that old product,” Currier said. “I try to honor their request.”

There has not been widespread opposition to these ordinances, though some landscapers have told town officials that organic products can be more expensive and less effective.

Some local lawn care business did not respond to a request to speak about the recommendation in Portland, but a manager at CKC Landscaping in South Portland told the Forecaster last fall that South Portland’s ban would make some jobs harder, especially for businesses that specialize in new lawns.

Organic fertilizer is more expensive and not as effective as synthetics, Kenny Roberts said. “Basically you have to put down three times as much.”

The local restrictions are welcome news for the Friends of Casco Bay, which has warned for years of increasing algal blooms along the shorelines of Portland, South Portland and other coastal communities caused in part by excess nitrogen washing off lawns. The slimy green algal blooms can suffocate organisms in mudflats and, when decaying, reduce oxygen levels and increase carbon dioxide in coastal waters.

“These lawn chemicals don’t stay on your lawn necessarily,” said Cathy Ramsdell, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Fertilizers are clearly one of the most important things to look at in terms of what an individual landowner can do.”

While organic fertilizers also can add nitrogen to the bay, they are preferred because they make soil healthier, which in turn reduces erosion and nutrient runoff, Ramsdell said.

Julie Rosenbach, the sustainability director in South Portland, said the main objectives behind the synthetic fertilizer regulations is to improve the health of soils in the city and ensure the health of waterways. The city is working on educating people about the ordinance and how to manage their land care using organic practices through its Grow Healthy South Portland webpage and other types of outreach.

“Our goal is to reduce fertilizers overall because even too much organic fertilizer is detrimental,” Rosenbach said. “Most of our community is completely on board with organic land care and continuing to create a more healthy community.”

Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability director, said discussions about regulating fertilizers in the city began in 2016 when a task force looked at the impact of pesticides and fertilizers. But the focus at the time turned to pesticides because the task force believed the two issues should be addressed separately.

Portland’s pesticide ordinance requires licensed applicators to submit an annual report outlining all synthetic and organic pesticide treatments within city limits.

Enforcement is a challenge and the rules are used more to educate than the punish. The city relies on community-sourced reporting to monitor compliance with the pesticide ordinance. Last year, residents filed 12 reports about potential violations through the See-Click-Fix platform.

Moon said most of those reported violations noted lack of proper signs, including the chemical name as required by the ordinance. The city does not investigate or confirm those violations, but instead focuses on educating people about the ordinance, he said.

Portland’s advisory committee has used the South Portland ordinance as a model of its recommendations, with some changes. Specific details of a Portland ordinance – including whether to exempt athletic fields or the city’s golf course – would be worked out by the Sustainability and Transportation Committee if it decides to move forward with the recommendation.

In South Portland, the fertilizer ordinance applies only to turf, which includes lawn and grassy areas, as opposed to gardens. Moon said the majority of the advisory committee believes a Portland Fertilizer Ordinance should apply broadly to require organic fertilizer for all soil conditions, including gardens, flower beds and around trees.

The committee also would like Portland to coordinate with partners in South Portland and other communities to educate the public and land care industry about organic and chemical-free land care practices.

“Working together will allow the pooling of resources and hopefully lead to more effective efforts than an individual community could achieve on their own,” the committee wrote in the report.

Rosenbach welcomes the Portland committee’s recommendation that the city work closely with other communities to educate people about organic land care.

“We work so closely with Portland on so many things, I think it makes sense to coordinate around these issues,” she said.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

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