ORLEANS – The local use of fertilizers and their impact on the town's water resources has been a subject of discussion among Orleans officials for years. Select board members last week said the time has come to take more forceful action.
Following the lead of officials on Nantucket, the board voted 4-0 June 15 to draft an article for the special town meeting in October requesting that the town petition the state legislature to ban the use of fertilizers townwide.
Nantucket voters at their May 2 town meeting approved a petition seeking to ban the application of fertilizers throughout the island. An exception is made in the petition that allows the use of fertilizers for "farming purposes."
According to the island's petition, there is "sound scientific evidence" that excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus commonly found in fertilizers negatively impact fresh and salt water bodies.
"It is necessary to prohibit the application of fertilizer that contains phosphorus and nitrogen so as to improve the water quality of the Town of Nantucket," the petition reads.
Select board members in Orleans voiced support June 15 for advancing a similar petition at the state level to further the town's existing policy regulating the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The policy, adopted in 2012, was originally designed to prohibit the use of all three at Eldredge Park, but Town Administrator John Kelly said it applies to all town-owned properties. It also promotes the practice of organic fertilization using compost and other natural materials.
Kelly cautioned that passage of the petition at the state level is not guaranteed. He also said that enforcement of a town-wide fertilizer ban, which would fall to the town's building commissioner, Thomas Evers, could prove difficult.
But select board members said they saw the need to take action toward a similar ban as Nantucket.
"Whether there's a reasonable chance of success or not, I'd like to join with Nantucket," said Mefford Runyon of the select board.
Fertilizer use was cited as a particular concern on short-term rental properties owned by second homeowners. Kevin Galligan of the select board said that prior to the meeting, he saw fertilizer being applied to one such property before a lawn care company came in and began cutting the grass.
"So everything that was sprayed is now being chewed up, broadcast and scattered about the atmosphere," he said.
Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said if the ban comes to fruition, she would like to see it written in the town's short-term rental license.
"The license has to say that [fertilizer] application is not part of your right to do business in the town," she said.
Having spoken with members of the town's shellfish and waterways committee prior to the June 15 meeting, Select Board member Michael Herman said there is support from that committee and others in town for furthering the discussion about how to manage the use of fertilizers, as well as pesticides and herbicides. He favored creating a task force composed of town committee members, town staff and members of the public to explore potential next steps the town might take.
"I think people are ready, thanks to Nantucket's lead, to relook at this and research it," he said.
But Galligan said a more immediate approach is needed to better protect the town's waterways.
"Please. October town meeting, put it on," he said. "Don't wait for a task force. I think this town needs something, even if the state sits on it."
Runyon said working toward a town-wide fertilizer ban makes sense given the significant financial investment that's been made across the state in recent years to protect waterways from nitrogen and other pollutants. Fertilizers, Runyon estimated, contribute about 15 percent to nutrient loading in waterways. Kelly said he saw figures that put the number closer to 10 percent.
"The state through its subsidies and the town through its tax rate is spending billions of dollars on wastewater cleanup, and this has been the lowest hanging fruit of all," he said.
Education will also play a pivotal part in the success of any ban in town, Runyon noted. Many second homeowners may not know how their properties are being maintained when they're not in Orleans, or about how the use of fertilizers impacts the town's waterways. Kelly said an insert could go out with property owners' tax bills alerting them to the town's efforts to curb fertilizer use.
The select board expects to have further discussion in the coming weeks about forming a task force to look at future steps, including how to regulate the use of pesticides and herbicides.
"That was a leap we made tonight," Reed said of the vote to prepare the town meeting article.
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