Alachua County Commission considers new restrictions on irrigation systems

Still from livestream of April 4 Alachua County Commission Special Meeting – Alachua Chronicle


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the first of three Special Meetings on April 4, the Alachua County Commission considered proposed changes to codes related to landscape irrigation and water conservation.

Stacie Greco, the Water Resources Program Manager with the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, presented the proposed changes after leading off with a chart by year of average daily water use versus the percentage of new homes with irrigation systems, showing that newer homes are using far more water than older homes.

Greco said that irrigation systems are “now negating and trumping all the water savings in the building codes for indoor water conservation, like our faucets and our toilets.”

The County’s irrigation design code has been in effect since 2016 and was expanded into the municipalities in 2019, and a recent analysis showed that the new code did not produce significant water savings; Greco said that was not a surprise because “we knew it was a baby step to start to regulate the irrigation industry and individual lots.” She said that pools do not significantly drive water use, but water use drops when the irrigated area is reduced. She said, “We’ve found over the years that limiting irrigation is key. If irrigation is installed, it will be used.”

Proposed changes

The proposed changes for residential properties, which will apply only to new irrigation systems and additions to existing systems, include a requirement to get the County’s approval for new systems unless they meet the Florida Water Star Gold Certification. Greco said the County is encouraging temporary irrigation systems (one year, to establish new landscaping) instead of permanent systems, so there are no application fees for temporary systems.

Site plan sketches are currently required for all systems, but Greco proposed making a site plan optional if the system covers less than 1,500 square feet and is limited to three zones. Irrigation will be limited to 50% of the permeable area in single-family lots, with a maximum of 0.25 acres of irrigation, down from the current limit of half an acre.

For new installations, the controller must be outside and accessible to County staff, and the builder/developer is responsible for ensuring compliance after the inspection and before the sale.

Commissioner Ken Cornell said, “I’ve said we’ve got to save water for food. I’ve been saying it since I was elected in 2014. We’ve done a lot of things, but I think just lowering the size is really the only way to stop it. If it’s there, it’s going to be used.”

Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler agreed: “You’ve heard me say all along, I’d like to see it all gone, no in-ground, no irrigation.”

Homeowners are already responsible for inspecting their systems annually, and staff considered requiring documentation of those inspections, but they said they received feedback that that would be seen as overreach. Greco said the County could decide to start asking for documentation at any time, but they are not proposing it at this time.

New requirements for commercial properties include the irrigation limit of 50% of permeable areas, required high-efficiency nozzles for turf, separate zones for trees, and registration with the County, along with providing documentation of an annual inspection of the irrigation system.

Greco said that properties that use a lot of water sometimes put in irrigation wells, and for the County, that means “we lose that data” in water supply planning. She said the State does a water use report every five years, “and they see that public supply water use is decreasing. One of the hypotheses in that is we might just be shifting our water to those wells that aren’t being accounted for.” She said local governments are preempted from prohibiting irrigation wells, but it’s unclear whether the County or a water utility could require homeowner associations to prohibit them. Greco recommended that the board send a Chair letter, asking for a written response from the water management district and Department of Environmental Protection on whether there is a way to prohibit irrigation wells: “We want something in writing so we can move forward.”

Cornell said Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson has emphasized the importance of protecting farms and food security, “and so there should be some alignment with that effort, to also shift how we are using water in the state. We’ve got to clean ourselves, and we have to drink it, but we don’t have to put it on St. Augustine grass. We really just don’t. We need it to grow food.”

Commissioner Mary Alford made a motion to authorize staff to advertise a public hearing on proposed revisions to the code and to approve the Chair letter regarding irrigation wells, and Wheeler seconded the motion.

During public comment, Ed Bravo, a partner at Big Trees Plantation and past president of Florida Nursery Growers & Landscape Association, said the 50% limit on irrigated land is the strictest in the state. He said he thought the current programs are working to encourage people to use less water for irrigation: “I think they are beginning to take hold, and designers are starting to get used to the fact we have to do better with less. We all understand that… When I see the tendency to berate sod in particular and other parts of the landscapes as being the culprit, the designs to the irrigation codes are not the issue… It’s behavior… It’s as easy as turning them off… You just don’t use them when you don’t need them. It’s not complicated.”

Luis Diaz, developer of Town of Tioga, said the County should be “careful with the law of unintended consequences” and that they should give the current codes a chance. He said he’s an owner of a nursery, and they have sold “lots of trees to the County that replaced trees that died because they were not being irrigated.” He said that if they want a tree canopy, they should encourage bubblers, but under the proposed codes that discourage irrigation, national developers are likely to come in and plant trees that will be dying by the time they move on.

The motion passed unanimously.

  • St. Augustine grass is a high maintenance, water sucking abomination, requiring too much water and pesticides. St. Augustine grass lawns probably should not even exist in north central Florida. Landscaping should consist of Florida drought tolerant native plants, not lawns which need constant maintenance. The noise created by lawn mowers, edgers and leaf blowers can be a nightmare, not to mention the energy usage. All for what? So that migrants from northern states can come down to Florida and feel right at home with the same lawn appearance and plants they had up north? I’ve seen beautiful homes in Albuquerque, New Mexico that had no lawns at all, opting instead for native plants, etc. Perhaps we should be thinking more about mandatory Florida xeriscaping instead of lawns. An alternative could be to use Bahia grass which can be allowed to brown out because it will green up naturally when it rains. St. Augustine grass lawns are for chumps and delusional fools who think they are living on some large estate in England with lots of green grass tended to by grounds keepers.

    • Well stated Paco. Why would anyone give a thumbs down to your idea?
      Ignorance is bliss, so shut someone down if it’s causing you to think!

      • i have a lawn and I’m not a yam dankee transplant. I also grow over 250 pounds a year of my own organic produce. The water and transportation costs saved are dramatic. I live in a subdivision. Our tree ordinance is not invoked.

      • Why would they give a thumbs down? Probably the thumbs down come from the dumbed down homeowners who pay lawn cutting services almost $3,000 per year to cut useless St. Augustine grass. The only way to stop the madness of poisoning our water with nitrogen and pesticides, etc., and actually wasting our water resources is by legislating these lawns out of existence and by providing tax break assistance to homeowners to encourage them to get rid of their lawns. Water should be used to irrigate crops, not to cater to the egos of selfish idiots.

      • Really? Can you eat the St. Augustine grass you spend so much time and money nurturing? Other countries consider Americans idiots for wasting so much effort on lawns. The delusional halfwits who love their lawns imagine themselves to be “Lord of the Manor” like English aristocracy. Knowing that the average American is a dumb chump, subdivision developers name their boring ticky tacky housing tracts “Oaks Estates,” “Shady Estates,” or whatever “estates.” This is to pander to the stupidity of Americans who imagine themselves to be aristocrats because they live in an “estate” with green lawns as in England. Well get this dumbo — you are not living in an estate. You are living in a cheaply built cardboard box of a house with a money-sucking St. Augustine grass lawn that only makes you a wannabe loser, not British royalty!

    • How about you live how you want to live and take your soap box and go recycle it.

  • Clearcutting trees for new subdivisions forces homeowners to irrigate more, because the full day of sun exposure (no old tree shade) dries out the new plants and lawns. Duh.
    It’s a Catch-22: we want denser residential but the underground utilities necessitate the removal of old trees and their roots. The law requires underground utilities for storm mitigation.

    • Underground utilities is a very minor factor in tree removal at new developments.

      • It’s a major factor even homes are densely packed together. Also don’t yo keep down housing construction costs. Needed with Fed’s new mortgage rates. Definitely.

  • Why is the masked bandit tax and salary grabbing expert hiding behind a face diaper? Now that the China Flue has past the Commissioner’s do want another overreach.

    • There used to be crazy people around us that we could not identify. They have now come to light. Many of the crazies are still wearing mask. I guess there will be treatments developed for the new mask wearing mental illness.

  • Oh brother! Should we say big brother?
    Democrats complain about legislation at the state level. I would wager Alachua County has the most restrictive residential codes in the state.
    I would also wager that most of those new construction homes are being built for those liberals fleeing the products of their own making.
    They’ll never learn.

    • I have been a builder here for over 40 years. Alachua County and Gainesville do not have the most restrictive building codes – we have a Florida state code with some limited room for local modifications and varying enforcement – and are in fact in my experience, generally easier to deal with than Marion County and Lake County where I have also built.

      • If it weren’t for the endless permits required by the city and county maybe you builders could actually make affordable housing. You build and have to charge more per unit because you have to increase the densities to provide city and county mandated green space.
        Look that up.

        • Dude, as I stated, building codes are state mandated in Florida, with only small areas of flexibility for permitting authorities. Alachua County and Gainesville are looser than either Marion or Lake counties in terms of acquiring permits.

          Much of the Florida Code is a reaction to the realities 1st quantified in Hurricane Andrew (1991) and are common sense structural improvements. Are there other questionable or ticky tack requirements which might be designed to avoid law suits? Yes, but they are not predominant in the code, and nothing is perfect. The Florida Code is a very good one and largely protects owners of buildings being built across the state.

          • And I stated, builders/developers have to inflate prices due to the requirement of easements and greenspace because of county and city requirements. Many of us know what contributes to the lack of affordable housing your elected leaders play a contributing role in. The same affordable housing they claim to be fighting for.

    • Alaucha County and the city of Gainesville wants to be California all over with them left wing woke ideology and when the state takes over GRU the woke city will go broke with the county not far behind

  • (Almost) all government regulation encroaches on our Freedom. Bureaucrats like to regulate things. If you let them meet, they pass laws, rules, and regulations that limit what we can do with our own property. This is yet another example of why Springs County should separate from Alachua County and leave these bureaucrats to play in a smaller fiefdom. What happened to that initiative? What is stopping it? It would be a delicious rebuke to the nanny-stater Karens in Alachua County…

    • Fred, the aquifer is a common resource that an only be maintained against increased pressures from growth by government regulations. If you have some mystery solution not requiring a concerted response by the citizens of Florida, please, tell us what it is.

      By the way, the very politicians selling “Springs County” are, like you apparently, doing nothing to protect the namesakes of their ad campaign. Nor do these Gainesville bedroom communities rely on the “Springs” for their economic vitality, but instead on Gainesville jobs and markets for their continued growth and even existence. Without Gainesville, Newberry is Ft White and Alachua is Perry. Face reality.

      • Without the worker that live in Newberry and Fort White, Gainesville is not the utopia you think it is. Face reality!

        • Never said otherwise. Unlike most here, i am not at war with the various towns and cities in Alachua County.

      • Newberry, FT White ,Alachua and Perry as well as surrounding counties are not Broke and Insolvent like GRU and the City of Gainesville. Get you pious nose out of the air and deal with reality. No ones else needs the State to oversee, fire and replace the clueless, financially inept leaders. Gville has Pi$$ed off 32 other well run utilities that will now have additional regulations to keep them from doing something stupid like GRU. Rules for Mindless Wokesters and Progressive

        • Yeah, we’ll move there buddy. Hopefully you’ll find peace and won’t think Big Daddy Government taking over local government is a good thing.

          • I found my peace and freedom several years ago with a 10KW Solar System . Local New Governance with a Brain and Common Sense would be welcome change for lower taxes, law and order, and vision. Come on Big Daddy and clean house in Gainesville.

    • Springs county was a bad idea. Instead the state should either annex Gilchrist or the unincorporated Alachua county into Gville — to change election results here. And to reform GRU, force UF as a 100% ratepayer too.

      • I’m all for unified services and voted to be annexed into Gainesville when it was posed about 20 years ago, but my neighbors didn’t agree.

  • I have a large vegetable garden – and guess what? I water it. I live in a subdivision. i manually run irrigation when needed. My next door neighbor, who moved in and cut down at least 50 trees, runs his every day. The ordinances were worthless.

  • Of course it passed unanimously! Way to follow the lead of the feckless city commissioners, don’t listen to the experts, just pull up your masks and pretend you’re doing something right. Pathetic!

    • Commenters obsession with masks – one of the commissioners chose to wear one, and given the fact that covid is still an issue – I know 6 people very well who have had it in the last 2 months – and masks are effective, despite the false reporting on recent studies, she’s the smart one. Hey, you don’t care if you or others get it, don’t wear one and I’ll try to not think worse of you, but the busy bodies on this are people like you

  • I got tired of trying to get a decent stand of grass to grow on our small lot a few years back. A local landscaper replaced most of our sod with a ‘shrub garden’ of various dwarf trees and bushes. Something is always blooming. I love it. No more mowing in the heat of summer. I grow a few veggies out in back and have citrus to give away.

    He also replaced a lot of the area sprayers with drip lines and we have the irrigation controller on the internet. If it rains I can turn off the system for a few days from my phone.

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