A regional effort to protect the Vineyard’s coastal estuaries and drinking water is set to come before voters this spring as Island boards of health chart regulations to curb fertilizer use.
The proposed regulations are now under review as an Islandwide district of critical planning concern, a special overlay planning process allowed through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
The commission voted to accept the DCPC nomination last Thursday, the first step in creating an overlay district. The nomination was made by five towns and has the support of a sixth (Aquinnah). A public hearing on the draft regulations will be held March 27 and warrant articles for a uniform bylaw will come before every annual town meeting in the spring.
If approved, the regulations would create a licensing process for landscapers and golf courses to limit the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous applied to lawns and grassy areas. Edgartown board of health agent Matt Poole said the idea of the initiative is to allow limited amounts of fertilizer and thereby prevent excess nitrogen from leaching into the water table.
He called it planning for the future.
“The reality is there’s not a nitrogen problem staring us in the face today, but if you look at all the environmental indicators nothing is trending in the right direction,” Mr. Poole said. “Between coastal erosion, oyster closures and all — the coastal embayments here are at least moderately, if not severely, stressed.”
The working group to develop the guidelines included representatives from Mink Meadows, Edgartown Golf and Vineyard Golf, board of health agents and landscapers.
Modeled after Nantucket’s fertilizer regulations, the proposed rules would prohibit the application of turf fertilizer between Nov. 15 and April 15, and during rainstorms and near storm drains. The amount of nitrogen used per application and total amount per year would be restricted, and controls would be placed on the content of the fertilizer. Phosphorous would be prohibited unless a soil test indicates a phosphorous deficiency. Agricultural and horticultural applications would be exempt. If they are approved, the regulations will take effect in January 2015.
Currently, fertilizer regulations vary from town to town and are regulated by conservation commissions and boards of health. The DCPC would create a uniform policy, Mr. Poole said.
The DCPC nomination triggered an automatic moratorium on fertilizer licenses, but the issue is moot since no permits exist currently.
“It is a very narrow moratorium on fertilizer licenses, there’s no such thing as fertilizer license and it’s not fertilizing season,” Mr. Poole said. “It couldn’t be more dormant, so it’s really a meaningless moratorium.”
The boards of health are taking advantage of a year-long regulatory window which allows the Cape and Islands to draft their own regulations. State Rep. Timothy Madden and Sen. Dan Wolf recognized the uniqueness of the Island’s environs, Mr. Poole said, and petitioned for an amendment to the state regulations. Nantucket adopted their own regulations last year.
“This is something that five to 15 years out, we’ll be glad we have on the books, and if we miss it,it’s gone,” he said.
The commonwealth released its initial statewide fertilizer regulations last week, which are heavily focused on curbing phosphorous rather than nitrogen. They are set to go into effect in 2015. Any Vineyard town that rejects the proposed DCPC will be subject to the state regulations.
Mr. Poole said the state regulations are not well tailored to the Vineyard, where nitrogen is considered the greatest threat to coastal waters.
“The Vineyard environment has been identified as nitrogen sensitive, not phosphorous sensitive,” Mr. Poole said. “We wrote something that was nitrogen focused, almost entirely nitrogen specific. In the rest of the state, especially inland as you get to freshwater sources, it’s very phosphorous sensitive. This is our opportunity to write something that’s a good fit for the Vineyard.”
The proposed regulations affect only fertilizer or weed and feed products, not the so-called “cides” — herbicide, pesticides and fungicides. Mr. Poole said the DCPC will have no impact on the ongoing NStar spraying debate or phragmites control issues around Squibnocket Pond in Chilmark.
When fertilizer is applied, the plant or grass takes on as much nitrogen as it can retain. Any excess passes beyond the reach of the root system and enters the groundwater, Mr. Poole explained. When that excess nitrogen ends up in a coastal embayment, including the Great Ponds, it spurs the growth of too much algae, which eventually causes an imbalance in the fragile saltwater pond ecosystem.
“Everything that flows to the south on the Vineyard makes its way into a Great Pond, everywhere from Squibnocket Pond to Edgartown Great Pond,” Mr. Poole said. “It passes the root system and enters the ground water and into our coastal ponds.”
Landscape professionals will be required to take an educational course, somewhat modeled on the commercial kitchen ServSafe course. One day of instruction will be followed by a written exam. The class will be administered by the boards of health.
Trained applicators will be required to retain a license and supervise employees. For example, a company with 20 workers would need at least three people with licenses.
Boards of health are emphasizing community education and outreach rather than enforcement, Mr. Poole said.
“Our idea is if we can get people into the classes and illustrate to them that it’s only necessary to put down a certain amount,” he said. He added that many of the landscapers are already engaging in sound, conservative practices when it comes to fertilizer application.
Mr. Poole said those enrolled in the program will receive a decal to put on their truck. Retailers on the Island will be equipped with an educational kiosk for consumers.
He said large fertilizer companies also are adapting to changing regulations up and down the East Coast.
Companies like Scott now make regional blends to meet the local stipulations, he said. In response to Nantucket’s regulations, for example, the fertilizer company made a Nantucket blend.
A Vineyard blend could be in the works, Mr. Poole said.