The Marine Resources Task Force will undertake a thorough review and update of the town's fertilizer ordinance.
But part of that update will need to include an education component.
"I talked to landscapers and they had no clue there was an ordinance," Council Member Joanne Shamp said at the March 6 meeting.
The town began discussing the fertilizer ordinance when Mayor Dennis Boback requested a workshop to strengthen it in the summer, and recently it has come up again as a way for the town to clean up its own contributions to water quality issues after members of the SWFL Clean Water Movement asked the town to do local water testing.
"I got tired of seeing my canal fill up with grass clippings every Saturday," Boback said - which is a violation in itself.
The current ordinance bans fertilizer with nitrogen or phosphorous during the rainy season from June 1 to Sept. 30, as these two nutrients promote algae growth. Environmental Technician Rae Blake said that rule was consistent with other local governments. From October through May, fertilizer cannot have a concentration of more than 2 percent phosphorous and 20 percent nitrogen.
In comparison to other municipalities and the county, Fort Myers Beach falls short in the buffer zone - how far away from water fertilizer can be applied. Sanibel's was the most restrictive, with a 25-foot buffer. Both Lee County and Bonita Springs have a 10-foot limit. Fort Myers Beach is only 3 feet.
Any landscaper in Lee County is required to register with the tax collector and show proof of completing a best practices training program. Blake said the town's ordinance stated "a program for certification will be developed for certification of commercial applicators," however no such program has been established.
Blake also suggested increasing efforts in public education. Sanibel has multiple outreach efforts to be sure residents and landscapers are informed - a webpage dedicated to fertilizer information, brochures, an instructional DVD. Lee County and Bonita Springs also had multiple methods of outreach, but Bonita Springs also adds an informational sign on real estate for sale signs. Blake said the town sends mailouts before rainy season begins, and she has developed a brochure for distribution. The ordinance is also available online.
"A majority of people are not used to florida landscapes, weather and soil characteristics," Blake said. She also suggested the town could host a free seminar on ways to reduce fertilizer use and implement native plants in landscaping.
However, if the town makes the ordinance more strict, there is a conundrum of how the town will enforce it.
"If we don't have a mechanism of enforcement there's no point in this conversation," Shamp said.
The town cannot make the penalizations for violations more strict than state statute which says the fine cannot exceed $250 per day or more than $500 per day for a repeat violation.
Boback suggested landscapers should register with the town and have training video for education.
"I'm trying to get some teeth in this ordinance so we can hold them accountable, not just slap on the hand," he said.
He also supported a 10-foot buffer zone, which Blake said was a good idea as the current ordinance doesn't really protect the water.
Council Member Anita Cereceda suggested the MRTF review the entire ordinance for a comprehensive review. Shamp said the task force should also include a review of grass clipping regulations.