Fertilizer rules fuel discontent
By Lisa Girard
New laws on the books in New York’s Suffolk County, as well as in other pockets of the United States, say people are no longer allowed to fertilize from late winter to early spring.
The Suffolk County law, which was passed in 2008 and took effect Jan. 1, prohibits residents from using fertilizer on their lawns between Nov. 1 and April 1. Lawmakers say the ground is too cold then to absorb the nitrogen found in fertilizer, which can leach into natural water bodies and stimulate algae growth, threatening the county’s shellfish population.
The ban includes organic fertilizer as well as synthetic products. It is the first such law to pass in New York State. According to Steve Levy, Suffolk County executive, the plan could reduce the amount of nitrogen leached into groundwater and surface waters from residential use by at least 25% — or 60 tons annually. Violators — whether they’re homeowners or professional landscapers — face a penalty of $1,000 per violation. Suffolk County’s commercial landscapers are licensed through the county, so repeat offenders might jeopardize their licenses.
“It’s definitely going to hurt business,” said the owner of one Suffolk County-based lawn care company, who asked that his name not be used. “I usually start fertilizing in mid-March, so I’m going to have to cram six weeks of work into four weeks. If it was two weeks — even one week — earlier, it would be a big help.”
Chris Wible, director of environmental stewardship at Scotts Miracle-Gro of Marysville, Ohio, agrees that one of the biggest problems about the new law is that it makes it almost impossible for professional applicators to serve all their customers. It also takes the decision-making process out of the hands of professionals and, instead, makes lawn care subject to an arbitrary date.
“The difficulty with the date is that the seasons fluctuate year to year,” said Wible, whose company makes both organic and synthetic fertilizers. “One year on April 1, the grass is growing; another year, we have a late winter, and the ground is still frozen.”
Sal Mortilla, owner of Landscaping Unlimited, a Farmingville, N.Y.-based landscape design company, said it’s “just another way for lawmakers to bow to the environmentalists,” adding, “Grass is a nitrogen magnet. It will absorb what’s put down. So I don’t get that part of it.”
Retailers are also worried about the effect this legislation might have on spring lawn and garden sales. Alan Talman, owner of Karp’s Hardware in East Northport, N.Y., called the new law “draconian” and “another example of our County Legislature forgetting who they work for.” He said he will still be able to sell crabgrass killer before April 1, but expects the ban to cut into the sale of crabgrass killer-fertilizer combinations and four-step lawn care programs.
“Anyone anxious to put down some crabgrass killer prior to April 1 will have to use a crabgrass killer that is not a combination fertilizer and herbicide,” he said. “The popular four-step lawn care programs that contain a combination fertilizer and crabgrass killer currently have a very large consumer rebate available, so some consumers might forfeit that.”
However, not all Suffolk County lawn and garden retailers are upset about the new regulations. Anne Trimble, who has been in the business since 1976 and has been co-owner of Trimble’s of Corchaug in Cutchogue, N.Y., since 1991, said it’s wonderful that lawmakers are finally caring about the environment.
“Americans have to get over the idea that their lawns have to be green and weed-free,” said Trimble, whose nursery sells only organic products. “Homeowners as well as landscapers have over-fertilized. Synthetic fertilizers tend to burn your lawn. I think it’s wonderful that Suffolk County is taking the lead on this.”
The Suffolk County health department and the Peconic Estuary Program report that 56% of groundwater-affecting nitrogen from residential areas comes from fertilizers. They estimate that 32% is from on-site sanitary systems like septic tanks and 12% from animal wastes and other sources. However, Pat Voges, head of government affairs for the Nassau Suffolk Landscape Gardeners Association in Brightwaters, believes that a much greater percentage of the pollutants come from sanitary systems and just 5% to 6% come from fertilizer. Still, he says, it’s a start to the cleanup process.
“If it’s going to leach through, we all live on this island and care about it,” Voges said. “They have to start someplace. People who are complaining should wake up and smell the coffee and learn to live with it.”
According to the Neighborhood Network Research Center, a Farmingdale, N.Y.-based environmental group, consumer education is a key to making the whole process work. The law calls for retailers to post signs announcing the new regulations within 10 feet of fertilizer displays, and Suffolk County is developing programs to educate consumers about how and when to apply fertilizer.
“This law does make a requirement for signage and forces public education to begin to take place. People selling the products should play a key role,” said Neal Lewis, executive director of Neighborhood Network. “Once you start talking about the dates, it promotes a deeper discussion about why people are using synthetic products and why they’re over-fertilizing.”
Scotts’ Wible is one of the people developing the in-store signage that will inform consumers of the Suffolk County legislation and tell them what they can do to help the county achieve its goals. “Our close relationship with the consumer and our understanding of how consumers interact with and use our products enables us to provide useful insights that make these efforts affective,” said Wible, whose company has also partnered with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Alliance for the Great Lakes to provide outreach materials.
In addition, Suffolk County’s 1,200 licensed landscapers are being required to take an approved turf-management course that teaches the proper use and application of fertilizer and methods to minimize nitrogen leaching. The idea is to promote low-maintenance lawn care and landscaping, modification of fertilizer application rates and greater use of slow-release formulas.
According to Voges, turf grass researchers at Penn State, Cornell, the University of Rhode Island and other research universities are trying to come up with other ways to keep lawns healthy. He said it’s a matter of figuring out alternatives to current accepted processes. “I’m sure this is going to be an economic burden on many people, but 35 years ago, fall fertilization was unheard of. We learned to grow turf with late fall fertilization, and we will learn to grow turf without it,” he said.
The fertilizer issue goes far beyond the shores of Long Island. New York’s Westchester County appears poised to follow in Suffolk County’s footsteps, as the Westchester County Board of Legislators is considering a law banning fertilizer use between Dec. 1 and April 1. (A public hearing was scheduled for March 23, and the board will decide on the issue sometime after that.) There are also rumblings of a similar law being instituted in Ocean County, N.J., which would ban fertilizer use between Nov. 1 and March 15.
William Carey, owner of Master Lawns in Hawthorne, N.Y., has been servicing lawns in Westchester for more than 30 years. He said these regulations would leave too small a window for application and will eliminate the need for several jobs during the December-to-April time period, “something we don’t need in this economy.”
In the case of Westchester County, the issue is that a lot of the local reservoirs that feed New York City’s water supply have higher than acceptable levels of phosphorus, which some have attributed to fertilizer runoff. Carey also questioned New York experts using a study on this issue by the Wisconsin Water Science Center to shape Westchester County policy. “It’s like comparing apple to oranges. It’s a lot colder in Wisconsin than it is here,” he said.
Builders talk about liquidity, asset management
SAN DIEGO — A panel of multi-family builders during a National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) conference gave a stark outlook for 2009, saying they plan no new housing units starts this year because of liquidity issues.
“Right now, getting started on apartment and condo projects is virtually impossible,” said Leonard Wood, founder of Wood Partners, a multi-family housing developer with operations in Washington, D.C.; the Southeast; Texas; the Southwest; and California. Wood said his firm is concentrating on refinancing its current construction loans and selling excess inventory.
Wood’s comments were echoed by several other builders who participated in a panel discussion at the National Association of Home Builders’ Pillars of the Industry conference, held at San Diego’s famous Hotel Del Coronado. Aimed at multi-family builders, the two-day event drew nearly 200 building material suppliers, utility companies, engineering firms, bankers and other attendees.
Four of the five multi-family builders on the State of the Industry panel said they planned to start no new units this year. Instead, most were “right sizing” their firms, looking for new financing and preserving their liquidity. When asked to forecast a housing market bottom, Charles Brindell Jr., president and CEO of Trammell Crow Residential Co., predicted there would be “no improvement economically until the second half of 2010.”
“Instead of being focused on new products, we’re focused on asset management,” Brindell said.
Ronald Ratner, executive VP and director of Forest City Residential Group, said: “I don’t think we’re anywhere near bottom. Major job layoffs are just starting to occur. We haven’t seen the impact of that yet.”
Representatives of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac attended the first day of the conference. Multi-family builders said they are now turning to these agencies for financing in the absence of other sources of capital.
KB Home president and CEO Jeff Mezger, the only single-family home builder on the March 18 panel discussion, said it’s still possible to make money in some markets — as long as you build a product that fits the income level of the local population. KB Home is now building smaller homes that are value engineered, he said, adding: “[We’ve] got to lower the cost of the product to the consumer.”
Elaborating on those comments in a later interview with Home Channel News, Mezger described “cost visibility” as a concept that KB Homes is adopting with its suppliers.
“We want to know the split between the labor and the building materials,” Mezger explained. “We may not buy the materials directly, but we’re interested in the suppliers’ costs. We want to remove some of the layers of distribution, and you can’t do that unless you know where [the materials] come from and what they cost.”
Weyerhaeuser announces more iLevel closings
Weyerhaeuser announced it will close iLevel lumber mills in Wright City, Okla., and Dallas, Ore., effective immediately. The decision will affect 307 employees.
The Federal Way, Wash.-based company cited a reduced demand for wood products due to the housing market slowdown.
Earlier this month, Weyerhaeuser announced it was closing four other iLevel manufacturing plants along with five of the division’s service centers. So far this year, the forestry company has shuttered 10 wood products facilities and reduced operations at all other sites.