Nantucket residents voted to ban fertilizer island-wide Tuesday night, making an emphatic statement in support of the health of the harbor over the objections of some in the landscaping industry.
Tempers flared as the debate unfolded inside the Nantucket High School auditorium, with Moderator Sarah Alger calling for constables to step between scalloper and charter boat captain Bob DeCosta and landscaper Ken Panacek. The dust-up - which included Panacek claiming he had been assaulted by DeCosta when he “poked” him in the chest – encapsulated the strong feelings on both sides.
Town Meeting attendees voted 347 to 105 to endorse the ban on fertilizer – which includes the entire island with the exception of farmland. As a home rule petition, it still requires approval by the state legislature, where critics believe it faces steep odds. “It’s dead on arrival,” one island landscaper told the Current at the meeting.
But Article 79, originally sponsored by the town’s Natural Resources Department technician Joe Minella, elicited impassioned pleas from environmental advocates and scallopers alike for its passage. They believe that runoff of fertilizer from green island lawns is loading the harbor with nutrients like nitrogen that cause excessive algae blooms and choke out the eel grass, which is critical habitat for Nantucket’s bay scallops. The island’s scallop fishery hit a near record low this year in bushels landed.
The Finance Committee had attempted to amend the article from a ban on fertilizer - which Town Counsel John Giorgio said had a slim to no chance of passing at the State House - to a simple request to the state to give Nantucket two years to develop new regulations in conjunction with UMass.
Prior to the meeting, Minella was resigned to go along with the Finance Committee’s motion, acknowledging that passage of a total ban was unrealistic and would not pass muster with the state. DeCosta, however, made a motion to restore the original language and pushed voters to approve the full ban.
“We are at critical mass here,” DeCosta said. “If we don’t do something soon, we are not going to have a scallop fishery anymore. A fishery that has been going on on this island for over 100 years. I put a pretty big target on my back in the landscaping community by pushing this but I am going to say this. I have gotten some pretty nasty emails and texts from landscapers who are against this, but I have also got some emails and texts from landscapers who want to be off the record who say they hope this passes because they have homeowners right now who said they don’t care about regulations or fines, 'I want my lawn to be as green as it can be and if you won’t do it I’ll find somebody else who will.' That is a pretty sad statement that you have to have your multi-million dollar waterfront home and that grass has to be so green so you can say my lawn is greener than my neighbors'.”
If the arguments sound familiar, that’s because Nantucket has already been through this debate. Back in the early 2010s, proposed fertilizer restrictions came to Town Meeting, got sent to a work group, and then in 2014 voters enacted a series of regulations that include restrictions on when and how much fertilizer can be applied to island properties. That occurred just before the state adopted standardized fertilizer regulations for all Massachusetts communities, allowing Nantucket’s restrictions to be grandfathered in and still valid.
The problem, Minella and others have argued, is that there is little to no enforcement. Even with the regulations in place, the health of the harbor has continued to deteriorate.
“Regulations have been in place for a decade now,” Minella said prior to the meeting. “It’s had a decade to work and it’s proven they haven’t been working. I think enforcement is a big issue with it. There’s no ability to enforce it.”
Panacek and other landscapers argued that the connection between fertilizer runoff and the loss of scallop habitat is tenuous and shouldn't be considered settled science.
“I have been landscaping for 40 years on- and off-island and one thing I have learned is to follow the science,” Panacek said, referencing laboratory reports and soil tests taken from various parts of the island. “This is not feelings or emotions like Bob (DeCosta) brings to the table. I guess it is time we start following the science, not the emotion.”
Michael Misurelli, the co-owner of J&M Landscape Services, also spoke out against the full ban of fertilizer.
“The article as originally drafted by Mr. Minella, it didn’t cite any scientific evidence that our current guidelines are a failure,” Misurelli said. “Very recent water quality reports by the town show improving trends, moderate to high quality water conditions and that we’re on target to accomplish total maximum daily loads for nitrogen. I know there’s a lot of people who will disagree with me, but to me that says the fertilizer guidelines are making an impact. It seems quite a stretch to exclude all trees, shrubs, and home gardens on the island from nutrients they need to survive. I truly believe that will create a more harmful environment going forward.”
But others who make their life on the water were not swayed by the landscapers pushing back against a ban on fertilizer. That included charter boat captain Brian Borgeson.
“Green lawns? If no one has a green lawn on this island, everyone is okay,” Borgeson said. “Everyone’s life is still great. If we have one disgusting horrible unusable harbor, everyone’s life is wrong. It’s super important to try to do this. I’m so against banning everything on this island, but we need to have responsible use...We have to put a blanket over this and give us five years. If it doesn’t work, we’ll come back and work with this again...Trust me, I take every single landscaper fishing on this island, so I’m speaking against my business right now, I’m speaking for the harbor and for Nantucket island.”
Mark Lucas, the golf course manager at the Nantucket Golf Club, said he was part of the work group that developed the the town’s existing fertilizer regulations. He faulted the town for the lack of education around those restrictions.
“Someone said five years? Golf courses won’t exist in five years if this passes,” Lucas said. “I think this will fail at the state level.”