Earlier this week, Mashpee residents received a letter from Town Manager Rodney Collins urging “…all property owners in Mashpee to stop the application of fertilizers on grass and landscaped areas.” Mr. Collins’s letter correctly identifies a real problem—harmful algal blooms in our ponds and waterways. Unfortunately, Mr. Collins is somewhat vague in his use of terminology: the specific culprit is nitrogen, yet Mr. Collins only refers to “fertilizers.” It is true that many fertilizers contain nitrogen, but some don’t. There are also other sources of the nitrogen entering our area’s waters. To begin to solve a problem, we first need to understand what that problem is specifically. I suspect that Mr. Collins didn’t want to complicate his letter unnecessarily, but this is a detail that needs to be included specifically in future discussions.
The primary problem with Mr. Collins’s letter is that it doesn’t acknowledge the legitimate concerns raised by his “request.” Many homeowners have spent a great deal of time and money to develop their lawns and are not likely to respond positively to the suggestion that they simply stop what they have been doing for many years. One can question the passion with which some pursue “the perfect lawn,” but that passion is real and needs to be acknowledged. There are many lawn care companies in the area providing these services, at least some of which pay taxes to the Town of Mashpee. What will be the impact on their businesses if many of their clients accede to Mr. Collins’s request? The strategy “Just say no” didn’t work especially well in the early 1980s. It probably won’t work well now either. Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.
Finally, it should be noted that Mr. Collins’s letter to Mashpee residents arrives in almost the precise middle of the growing season. Many residents have season-long contracts with the lawn care companies that service their properties. What’s to become of those contracts? In addition, there are many individuals who are passionately concerned about the nitrogen situation with our waterways. Might some of those individuals become emboldened by Mr. Collins’s letter to challenge in some way those homeowners who continue to fertilize their lawns? Are we creating the conditions for some potentially ugly situations in our community?
Mr. Collins’s letter was written with the best of intentions: the problem is one that our community needs to address—and soon. But the currently suggested approach is simply not the best way to accomplish this objective. What we need is a comprehensive plan that is developed with the participation of all stakeholders and provides time for homeowners and lawn care companies to develop workable responses that address the needs of all.
This is a good time to start the development of that plan, with the goal of presenting it to the Mashpee public by late winter, at the latest, before homeowners and lawn care companies enter into season-long maintenance agreements. We do need to begin to address the water quality problem immediately, but we cannot do so effectively unless the community as a whole is on board with the proposed solutions.
David C. Howell