Everything you need to know about the Florida-Friendly program, but were afraid to ask! Part 1

You may have heard the term "Florida-Friendly" used in articles about the controversial law (HB2080) that passed last year and in presentations by your agriculture agents, and you may even have visited the Florida Yards website.  I thought I was fairly well educated on the topic, but when I met Mike Thomas in Tallahassee earlier this year on my book tour, I realized that there was so much more to think about.  And now with the new 104-page book, "Florida Friendly Landscaping," I thought you'd be interested in knowing more, too. 

This is Part 1 of my interview with Mike.  Please feel free to ask more questions and leave your comments.  Thanks for reading.
Ginny Stibolt

An interview with Mike Thomas, Ph.D., P.E. on the Florida-Friendly program, a state-wide effort to educate homeowners and property managers to have less impact on the environment. Their nine principles of better and water-wise landscaping practices cover a wide range of topics from attracting more wildlife to reducing stormwater runoff. Mike works for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

1) What are the primary objectives of the Florida-Friendly program?

The primary goal of the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program and its predecessors* has been to induce a culture of educated, responsible stewardship of their land in the people of Florida, which will result in reduced non-point source pollution, water conservation, and a healthy ecosystem. While the vast majority of Floridians want to be good stewards, too few citizens understand how their everyday activities at home, work, or play can create “Pointless Personal Pollution” and harm our state’s vital water resources. This is especially true with respect to landscaping – very few people have had any formal education on how to actually maintain a home lawn or landscape in Florida, much less how to balance the needs of chosen landscape against the risks to the environment. Our objective is nothing less than to reach that goal, a cultural change, so that the common knowledge passed on neighbor to neighbor and to future generations is based on scientifically sound and sustainable practices about maintaining a nice yard in Florida.

*Predecessors to Florida-Friendly Landscaping program are: Environmental Landscape Management (ELM), Florida Yards and Neighborhoods (FYN), and the Green Industry Best Management Practices (GI-BMP).

The ELM program began at UF/IFAS in the mid 1980s, the FYN program about 1990, initially funded by the National Estuary Program in the Sarasota / Tampa Bay area, and then picked up financially by FDEP and some of the Water Management Districts and spread statewide. In 2000 several Green Industry associations met with DEP and IFAS to create Best Management Practices (BMPs) and a training program for their workers. About the same time a program was added to take FYN education to the developers and homebuilders (FYN-B & D) so that entire developments would be based on more sustainable landscape practices. As these programs grew and matured, overlapping and duplication began to occur. In order to eliminate conflicts and improve efficiency, the GI BMPs, ELM, FYN and FYN B & D programs were all merged into the FFL program and a centralized management structure.

In 2007, FDEP’s Nonpoint Source Management (NPSM) program, which provides much of the funding from USEPA Section 319 federal nonpoint source management grants, decided that with the 2008 grant, FYN, FYN-B & D, and GI-BMP would operate in a new structure under a single grant agreement, with a single IFAS grant manager overseeing all three programs, program coordinators to run the statewide outreach of each program, and adequate support resources to maintain the websites, process training records, publish materials, etc. This reinvigorated and more efficient program is called the Florida-Friendly Landscaping™ Program. Within UF/IFAS, it is housed in the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology.

Senate Bill 2080 recognized this in Section 373.185(3), Florida Statutes, which states: “…each {Water Management}district shall use the materials developed by the {DEP} department, the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida, and the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program, including, but not limited to, the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Program for homeowners, the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods Builder Developer Program for developers, and the Green Industries Best Management Practices Program for landscaping professionals.”

2) Now that the "Florida-Friendly" law (HB2080) has been in effect for a year, what differences have you noticed?

We posted the FAQs last summer and many questions and answers about it were generated in the email universe last fall, but the number of inquiries has now dropped off substantially. The workshops conducted around the state by the statewide FFL office in Gainesville also helped to address the rush of concerns. Since then, there has been a tremendous interest in people wanting to challenge their HOAs, but also many HOAs ask how they can address these issues and how they can become more Florida-friendly.

The HOA’s became much less worried after they learned that they could still address the look and feel of the neighborhood and protect property values, and the landscape/architectural controls did not go away. In many cases, only simple modifications of existing rules are needed. Many homeowners have been working with the county extension service and their HOAs to address these issues without legal animosity.

Have there been any legal tests of the law?

Of course, some homeowners and HOAs have not been so understanding of each other’s position. I know of no cases that have actually gone to trial, probably due to the cost to both parties. As a reasonably literate non-lawyer, I read the phrase “may not prohibit or be enforced so as to prohibit any property owner from implementing Florida-friendly landscaping” to mean that the very act of filing an action against a homeowner is illegal if it acts to enforce an illegal restriction. I suspect this may be why we are not seeing any cases, as nobody wants to be the first to lose a case.

3) I've noticed in my tour around the state that many people here in Florida don't have good knowledge of rain gardens. Will you be expanding your outreach on rain gardens as an important tool for reducing water pollution?

Rain gardens are just another “tool” in the BMP tool box. Like all BMPs, the appropriateness of rain gardens depends on site conditions and rainfall. Unlike the Pacific Northwest or the Chesapeake Bay region where rain gardens have been heavily promoted, Florida receives much more rain and our storms are much more intense. Rain gardens should only be used on Class A or B soils which typically are very sandy with good percolation capabilities. Rain gardens within the yard may be helpful to allow rainwater from downspouts or runoff from a walkway or patio to filter into the ground. An excellent site with more information for South Florida is http://okeechobee.ifas.ufl.edu/News%20columns/FYN.Rain.Garden.htm. TAPP also has a good brochure on implementing Rain Gardens.

4) I love the TAPP (Think About Personal Pollution ) program in Tallahassee http://www.tappwater.org/. Do you know of other cities or counties that are moving in the same direction? Wouldn't be great to make it a state-wide program?

The videos are available for statewide, and even national, use. Communities may contact Patti Sanzone at 850-245-7511 for more information about how to obtain the videos and customize them. The marketing firm and producer can customize the contact info for a very nominal cost.

Tune in for Part 2 where we ask Mike hard questions about the new FF Landscaping guide, Homeowners Associations, and how decisions were made regarding suggested plant lists.


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