ORLEANS – Every morning, Bill Wibel walks Kent's Point. In doing so, the Keziah's Lane resident said he's noticed what he calls "a changing ecology," and not for the better.
"We own this," he said of the town's waterways during a public workshop Monday to discuss a possible prohibition on the use of fertilizers in town. "We can change it, or we can watch it die."
There was little debate Monday over the role fertilizer application plays in polluting the town's waterways. But how to address the issue was a matter of broader discussion.
The workshop was designed to gather input on a proposal to petition the state legislature to allow the town to prohibit the use of fertilizers. An article is set to go before voters at the special town meeting on Oct. 17 seeking approval to move forward with the home rule petition.
Select Board member Michael Herman, who is leading the effort in support of the petition, said fertilizer use is second only to wastewater as the largest contributor to nitrogen pollution in the town's waterways. Prohibiting their use, he said, will further protect what he called the town's most valuable resource.
Nitrogen from fertilizers and other sources give rise to algae blooms that deprive waterways of oxygen.
Water pollution due to red tide, algae blooms and cyanobacteria has been studied extensively by the town, but Herman said the time has come to start taking added measures to address the problem.
"We have been studying our waters for several decades and the overall trend is that they continue to degrade and become more polluted," he said in a presentation at the start of the workshop.
Meanwhile, existing bylaws that are in place in town governing the use of fertilizers are "vague and outdated," Herman said, adding that they include too many exemptions to be effective. The proposed petition, modeled after a similar petition that passed with town meeting voters on Nantucket in May, would prohibit all use of fertilizers in town except in the case of commercial farming.
"It's come to a time where we need enforceable regulations, and we don't really," he said. "If you read the bylaws today, there's no enforcement penalties at all in our bylaws."
Speaking for the recreation advisory committee, Tracy Murphy, the committee's chair, said the committee voted in support of the petition at its July 21 meeting.
The petition would still allow fertilizers to be sold in town and would only prohibit their use, Herman said. But many in attendance of the workshop said while they support reducing the impact of fertilizers on the town's waterways, they disagreed with a prohibition or ban.
"When you say ban, it just sounds like an overreach and something that's not thought out," said Brian Sosner.
Josh Wile and his sister Jessica Thomas, co-owners of Agway of Cape Cod, said educating residents on proper fertilizer use would yield more effective results.
Wile said a prohibition on fertilizers would impact residential users who are not the main contributors to the nitrogen loading. Instead, he said most of the impacts related to fertilizer use come from their use by commercial operations.
"We are talking about today taking away the ability for the homeowner to apply fertilizer on their property," Wile said. "I propose instead of taking that totally away from them, why not educate the homeowner on using safer fertilizer?"
Unlike synthetic fertilizers, nutrients in organic fertilizers bind to the soil and are absorbed better by plants, Wile said.
"It's very, very slow release," he said. "This greatly reduces runoff." Organic fertilizers also don't need to be applied as much as synthetic fertilizers, Wile added.
Thomas said Agway employees take time to educate their customers on what kinds of fertilizers to use and how to appropriately apply them. They also provide tips on aeration and advise customers on what types of turf to consider.
"There's so much that can be discussed in terms of education between point A and a ban," she said.
Bill Amaru, a retired commercial fisherman who chairs the town's shellfish and waterways improvements advisory committee, said shellfishermen lost two-thirds of their season this year due to closures related to impacted waterways. Residents and seasonal homeowners are contributing to the problem in part through the use of fertilizers, he said.
"We have to break our addiction to the need to have a green lawn that looks like it's electrically charged," he said.
Apart from fertilizers, another resident pointed out the town's role in using other nitrogen-based products. Calcium chloride, for instance, is commonly used to de-ice town roadways during the winter, while lime is used to line athletic fields. Such products could potentially be banned if the petition passes and a bylaw is adopted, he said.
Martin Culik said the town did a fertilizer study in 2005 that found that of the 200 study participants, 89 percent expressed support for changing their behavior regarding fertilizer use. Later in 2012, he said, the town's park commissioners pledged to lead by example regarding proper use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicide use.
"If the town is trying to set an example, how do people know that?" he asked. "What is being done to show or demonstrate that? It's education, and there is none."
There's also no enforcement of existing regulations guiding the use and application of fertilizers, Culik said. The town adopted a bylaw in 2013 that, among other things, prohibits the application of fertilizers within 100 feet of wetland resource areas, he noted. However, he said he has witnessed people violate these regulations without consequence.
Residents also called upon the town to take a regional approach to addressing the issue, including reaching out to neighboring towns and the Cape Cod Commission. Herman said those efforts have been made.
Homeowners also have more latitude today to take more protective measures to prevent nitrogen loading into local waterways from their properties. That wasn't the case for select board member Mark Mathison, who said he was not allowed to install a Clivus composting toilet system when he built his home over 20 years ago. Instead, the state Department of Environmental Protection required him to install a Title V system, he said.
Mathison said homeowners, including the more than half who live here seasonally, need to be educated and informed about how to properly apply fertilizers to their property.
"We just need to keep working, and thank you to the people who are already doing it," he said.
Residents can sign up for notifications and alerts from the town regarding fertilizer use, but Joan Francolini had one piece of advice: Keep the notifications simple.
"There's so much out there, it gets confusing," she said.
Peter Jensen, who chairs the town's agricultural advisory committee, said there are "small, doable, affordable actions" homeowners can take to protect their lawns without fertilizer. Namely, barriers can be created to keep water from running off of properties, thereby nourishing lawns without feeding nutrients into waterways.
"If you can hold that water on your land, guess what you have? A green lawn," he said. Jensen recommended that the town invest in an education program on runoff mitigation for homeowners.
A public hearing will be held Aug. 31 on the home rule petition. The warrant for the special town meeting closes on Sept. 2.
Email Ryan Bray at email@example.com