Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nuclear, coal are "clean" energy in Senate bill

A proposal to require Florida utilities by 2020 to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from "clean energy" sources including nuclear and coal was approved by a Senate committee today.

SB 1154 replaced a "renewable" energy requirement recommended by the Florida Public Service Commission with a "clean energy" requirement that includes nuclear and coal gasification technologies. Neither were included in a renewable standard proposed by the PSC in January.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville and the bill's sponsor, said nuclear energy providers pressed to have nuclear included. But he also said his proposal limits coal and nuclear to one-quarter of the new clean energy that can be counted toward the requirement.

"I had to figure out some way I could please both sides ... (to) make them both happy but not excited," King said.

And he seemed to have achieved that. Neither utilities nor environmental groups seemed thrilled in their comments on the bill, though neither were they harshly critical.

Another proposal contained in the bill to raise the gasoline tax by 1 cent per gallon raised the ire of some senators. Half of the $90 million raised annually would go toward renewable energy projects.

The Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities, which King chairs, approved SB 1154 by a 6-3 vote. The next stop is the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

King said he wasn't sure the House would approve the bill and that House leaders said they wanted to see the Senate version before the House acted.

To reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change, Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 issued an executive order requiring 20 percent of energy to come from renewable sources. A bill adopted in 2008 directed the Public Service Commission to develop the proposal and submit it to the Legislature for approval.

The PSC said in January it should be left up to the Legislature to determine whether nuclear should be included in the "renewable portfolio standard." The commission said rate increases for renewable energy should be capped at 2 percent per year with 75 percent of the annual hike allotted for solar and wind.

The requirements apply to all utilities but there is no enforcement measure against municipal-owned utilities. And SB 1154 requires the PSC to excuse investor-owned utilities from the requirement if the cost of exceeds 2 percent of their annual electricity sales or there is not an adequate supply of clean energy.

Florida Power & Light and Progress Energy Corp. have submitted applications for permits to construct new nuclear plants at or near their existing plants in the state. SB 1154 also allows utilities to purchase nuclear energy from outside Florida to meet the requirement.

An FP&L representative said the utility supports a clean energy requirement but not some aspects of the bill. He said annual limits on increases should be restructured to allow utilities to use any combination of clean energy technologies to meet the requirements.

"We think flexibility is important," said attorney Ken Hoffman, representing Florida Power & Light.

Environmental group representatives praised King for wading into complex energy issues. But they said also they were concerned about redefining the renewable energy requirement to allow nuclear and coal.

About 13 percent of energy in Florida now is produced by nuclear compared to 1 percent from renewable sources, said Debra Harrison, representing the World Wildlife Fund and a member of the Florida Energy and Climate Commission. And she said the 2 percent rate cap for renewable energy, costing $2.58 a month for the average household, may be too low.

"We need to jump-start renewable energy in this state," Harrison said. "And we can see there are places where this is being done in a truly aggressive way right now."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Tight economy leads to "streamlining" bills

With the economy on the rocks, industry lobbyists are urging the Florida Legislature to adopt proposals to "streamline" state and local permitting. But some senators and environmentalists say many of those proposals may be disguised efforts to roll back environmental protection.

The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation last week delayed action on one streamlining bill, SB 852. Some senators questioned how the state could provide environmental protection under a shorter permit review timeline as established in the bill.

"We all want to create jobs and we all want good economic development," Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said. "But I think we also have seen a lot of time things fly under the umbrella of economic development that aren't (economic development)."

Other lobbyists say economic issues are raised on almost any bill involving environmental protection or rolling back regulations.

" 'A crisis is a terrible thing to waste' is the phrase going around," David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club's Florida chapter, said today.

SB 360 would remove state oversight of land-use changes in "dense urban areas" with more than 1,000 people per square mile. Environmentalists say the bill would allow more development in sensitive areas of the state's most populous counties.

HB 7049 would abolish the state land-planning agency, the Florida Department of Community Affairs. The department's planning divisions would be moved to the Florida Department of State.

"This is the developers taking advantage," said Denise Layne, of the Coalition for Responsible Growth in Hillsborough County. "I don't believe its our processes in this state that brought development to its knees. It's all over the country."

Rep. Chris Dorworth, who spoke on behalf of the DCA bill as vice chairman of the Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee, said there is nothing about HB 7049 that is anti-environmental. He said the bill doesn't change the state's oversight of planning, it simply moves the function from one department to another.

"I think managing growth is critical," said Dorthworth, R-Lake Mary.
"But doing it in a way that is successful for Florida's businesses also is critical."

The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation delayed action on SB 852 after Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and committee chairman, said there were a slew of such streamlining bills on the way. The bill requires state agencies to complete their reviews of wetlands permit applications within 45 days rather than 90 days for new industries targeted by counties.

Associated Industries of Florida believes the state permitting process can be streamlined without harming the environment, said Keyna Cory, AIF's chief lobbyist at the Capitol.

"No, we're not asking for less oversight. We're asking for the timeline to be sped up a little bit so we can get that (economic development) project up and running" she said.

But Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy director for Audubon of Florida, said the devil is in the details. Many state agencies have shrinking numbers of workers, she said, and reducing the time period for review could weaken environmental protection.

"There are a lot of agencies that are already functioning at capacity (and are) facing personnel reductions," she said. "You can imagine that when you have to process a greater volume with less capacity there could be effects on the rigor of permitting review."

In the House, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee today gave initial approval to a bill that provides a three-year extension for expired construction permits and prohibits local governments from adopting more stringent permitting standards than approved by the Legislature.

Environmental groups had opposed the measure but they said it was much improved. But they still have concerns along with the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

The economy "seems to infuse almost every issue" this session, said Scott Dudley, senior legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities.

Text and photos copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Alliance urges action on renewable energy

(File photo)

A coalition of environmental groups and businesses today urged legislative leaders to take action on a proposed renewable energy requirement for utilities.

The Public Service Commission is recommending that investor-owned utilities produce 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, a move that alliance members said would create jobs. A comprehensive energy bill adopted in 2008 requires the Legislature to approve the PSC recommendation.

Members of the Renewable Energy Alliance, which includes the Florida Retail Federation, said they were concerned that the proposed "renewable portfolio standard" would not clear the Legislature before the session ends in May.

"There is plenty of time to do it but there definitely is concern," said Susan Glickman, an advisor to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "We need economic stimulus now. We need it as soon as we can get it."

  The alliance said it was delivering a letter to House and Senate leaders urging action on the "renewable portfolio standard," which is contained in HB 1319 and SB 2490. The Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities is expected to propose a bill containing the RPS next week, Glickman said.

House Speaker Larry Cretul said through a spokeswoman that the issue is "very important and very complex." The House, he said, "intends to look at it methodically and deliberately to be sure that energy consumers' interests are fairly presented and considered."

Other House and Senate leaders were not immediately available for comment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Reports highlight "Oceans Day" at Capitol

Today is "Oceans Day" at the Florida Capitol

The Florida Oceans and Coastal Council will have displays in the Capitol rotunda from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The theme of this year's Oceans Day is "Florida's Ocean Assets in a Changing Climate and Economy," according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The council is highlighting its report, The Effects of Climate Change on Florida’s Ocean and Coastal Resources, which was presented to the Governor’s Energy and Climate Commission on Jan. 26.

The report noted Florida's vulnerability to climate change because of its 1,200 miles of coastline and its 18 million residents who live within 60 miles of the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. Rising sea levels increase beach erosion, wipe out estuaries and further threaten the state's drinking water supplies, the report said.

Earlier this week, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission highlighted its research into red tide that was published this month in the scientific journal "Harmful Algae." The agency last week offered to cut nearly $1.4 million in red tide research and mitigation grants to meet a 20-percent budget reduction as requested by Senate leaders.

To read the FWCC news release on its red tide research, go on the Web to www.myfwc.com or follow this link: http://myfwc.com/NEWSROOM/09/statewide/News_09_X_RedTidePub.htm

To read the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council report, follow this link:

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Enviros win one energy vote, lose another

A Senate committee today voted to support tougher automobile emission standards while a House committee went against environmentalists by voting to expedite drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite opposition from automobile manufacturers and farm and business groups, the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation voted 6-0 to approve a bill that would adopt California's auto emission standards as requested in 2007 by Gov. Charlie Crist.

"It will save the consumer money," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said. "It will help Florida's energy security. And it will help our environment."

But opponents said the California rule, which would be adopted in SB 1994, would lead to higher vehicle costs and a possible shortage of light trucks used for farming.

Auto dealers said they can't sell hybrid cars now because of falling gas prices and that those vehicles couldn't pull a boat and trailer.

"I drive a (Toyota) Prius," said Ken Plante, representing J.M. Family Enterprises Inc. of Deerfield Beach, owner of Toyota dealerships in the Southeast. "My big problem is trying to find out where I can put my gun rack."

An amendment adopted today requires the Legislature's approval of any future changes in the emission standards if California adopts changes to its standards. That was intended to address the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee ruling that the bill granted authority to California officials in violation of the Florida Constitution.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said people were outraged that automakers requested a financial bailout from the federal government while they are not making cars that people want.

"If we don't do this, I believe we will jeopardize the environment," she said. "I think it's time Florida was the leader rather than being last. I'm tired of that."

The auto emissions bill likely faces a tougher fight ahead as it moves to other committees. The Legislature approved an energy bill requiring legislative approval of any auto emissions rule change adopted by DEP.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists were concerned that the House version of the bill is stalled. HB 1309 has not been heard yet in the House Government Affairs Policy Committee and is slated to be heard by six other committees or councils.

Crist told reporters he wasn't concerned because the session is only about halfway over.

"Things really start to break the last few weeks, more so than the first week weeks," he said. "I suspect that is what we'll see again this session."

In the House, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-5 to pass HB 1219, which was amended to direct DEP to develop a plan to expedite oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan would have to be submitted to Senate and House leaders by Dec. 31.

Florida's opposition to drilling eased last summer when Crist said he would not oppose it if Florida's coastal environment could be protected.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Charles E. Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, said drilling is needed to provide cheaper fuel and royalties for the state treasury while reducing dependence on Middle East oil. The drilling, he said, could occur in Florida waters within nine miles of the coast if DEP provided such direction.

"I'm saying in this bill we shouldn't be afraid to drill it," he said. "I'm saying we should do it responsibly. We should have the checks in place to gather our own natural resources."

But Sierra Club representative David Cullen said drilling offshore is not without risk to Florida's environment and its $39-billion annual coastal economy. And he said burning more fossil fuels will contribute to climate change.

"This is exactly the direction we should not be going in," Cullen said.

Sole, the DEP secretary, said the department has concerns about the amended bill but he wants to see it before a position is taken.

"Currently drilling is something handled by the Department of Commerce and Minerals Management (Service) as part of their federal effort," Sole said. "There is no drilling in state waters. The expectation is that would continue."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

DEP offers mid-week closures of 58 state parks

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

By Bruce Ritchie
Visitors to 58 Florida state parks could see closed gates three days a week under a budget-cutting proposal requested by Senate leaders.

Facing possibly a $6.5 billion deficit in fiscal 2009-10, the Senate asked some state agencies to offer ways to cut their operating budgets 20 percent. That would help shield health care and education from deeper cuts, said Sen. Carey Baker, chairman of the Senate Committee on General Government Appropriations.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed $88 million in budget cuts, including $2.2 million saved by closing from Tuesday to Thursday those parks that lack campgrounds and cabins. A list of the parks is provided below.

"I could truly see a family taking the day off to go to enjoy a state park in the middle of the week and finding it closed," DEP Secretary Michael Sole said. "That would be truly disappointing."

He said the department would work to inform the public if the reductions are approved in the 2009-10 state budget.

As part of a budget exercise last fall, DEP had proposed closing 19 state parks but faced an outcry from local communities. In his proposed budget for next year, Gov. Charlie Crist proposed an increase in entrance fees of $1 per vehicle to raise $7.2 million.

Sole and other agency representatives outlined their proposed cuts Thursday during a meeting of the Senate Committee on General Government Appropriations.

"Such a somber meeting we're having today," said the usually-witty Baker, a Republican from Eustis.

There was no reaction to the proposed park closures from committee members. But Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, said the fee increase would be significant for families. Park entrance fees now range from $3 to $5.

"It is affordable, but it's not a cheap adventure," he said.

Other possible cuts also would significantly affect DEP operations, Sole said. They include eliminating all of the seasonal positions at Florida parks, effectively reducing by half the 1,063 state park employees. Another 20 permanent park positions would be cut for a combined savings of $3.7 million.

DEP, with 3,574 employees, overall would lose 213 jobs or 6 percent of its workforce to meet the 20-percent reduction, Sole said.

The department also proposes eliminating its Florida Springs Initiative to save $2.4 million, cutting nearly $10 million from two underground petroleum storage tanks cleanup programs and cutting $1.6 million from its environmental crimes investigations. And $600,000 to administer beach sand replacement projects would be cut, significantly slowing the pace of beach restoration.

Sole said Florida could lose the 50 percent federal match in beach restoration dollars if the state doesn't contribute to those projects.

Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said the beach program provides a boost to the state's tourism economy. And Sole said every dollar spent on beaches produces about $8 for the economy, as well as reducing property damage from storm waves.

But Baker, the committee chairman, said those projects had received $30 million a year from the documentary tax stamp on real estate transactions. But that revenue is estimated at $800,000 next year amid the economic slowdown.

"We built a funding source on shifting sands," Baker said. "And those sands washed away -- completely went out to sea."

Photo courtesy of the state Division of Parks and Recreation. Text copyright by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com

Here is the list of parks being considered for closing and reduced hours of operation

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park LEON
Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park POLK
Atlantic Ridge State Park MARTIN
Avalon State Park ST LUCIE
Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park MIAMI-DADE
Camp Helen State Park BAY
Cedar Key Museum State Park LEVY
Charlotte Harbor Preserve State Park CHARLOTTE
Colt Creek State Park POLK
Constitution Convention Museum State Park GULF
Crystal River Archaeological State Park CITRUS
Crystal River Preserve State Park CITRUS/LEVY
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park SUMTER
Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park MONROE
De Leon Springs State Park VOLUSIA
Deer Lake State Park WALTON
Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park COLLIER
Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park ALACHUA
Dudley Farm Historic State Park ALACHUA
Dunns Creek State Park PUTNAM
Estero Bay Preserve State Park LEE
Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park COLLIER
Florida Nature and Heritage Tourism Center HAMILTON
Fort Cooper State Park CITRUS
Fort Pierce Inlet State Park ST LUCIE
Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park MONROE
Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park CITRUS
Honeymoon Island State Park PINELLAS
Hugh Taylor Birch State Park BROWARD
Ichetucknee Springs State Park COLUMBIA/SUWANNEE
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park PALM BEACH
John Gorrie Museum State Park FRANKLIN
Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at
Gamble Plantation Historic State Park MANATEE
Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park OKEECHOBEE/OSCEOLA
Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park LEON
Lake June-In-Winter Scrub State Park HIGHLANDS
Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park JEFFERSON
Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park MONROE
Lovers Key State Park LEE
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park ALACHUA
Paynes Creek Historic State Park HARDEE
Ponce de Leon Springs State Park HOLMES/WALTON
Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park DUVAL
Ravine Gardens State Park PUTNAM
Rock Springs Run State Reserve ORANGE/LAKE/SEMINOLE
San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park WAKULLA
Savannas Preserve State Park MARTIN/ST LUCIE
St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park MARTIN
St. Marks River State Park JEFFERSON/LEON
St. Sebastian River Preserve State Park BREVARD/INDIAN RIVER
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park ESCAMBIA
Terra Ceia Preserve State Park MANATEE
Wacasassa Bay Preserve State Park LEVY
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park FLAGLER
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park PASCO
Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park MONROE
Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park SANTA ROSA

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Revamped springs bill passes committee

A bill that would require advanced septic systems and sewage treatment plants in counties with major springs was approved by a Senate committee on Tuesday.

SB 274 by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, was passed by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, which he chairs. The bill, which was substantially rewritten on Tuesday, was widely praised by environmentalists but faces opposition from developers.

Click here for larger image

Springs across the state have become choked with weeds and algae as high nitrogen levels in groundwater have fueled plant growth. Scientists point to septic tanks, wastewater plants, fertilizer use, livestock farms and dirty stormwater runoff as potential nitrogen sources.

"We cannot ignore taking corrective actions," said Constantine, the Senate committee chairman. "If we do, future generations will ask us, 'Why?' "

In a legislative session focused on the economic crisis and cutting state spending, opponents said the bill will add to the costs of new homes and existing homes where septic tanks will need to be replaced. Constantine said he heard that one opposing lobbyist, whom he did not name, had called the bill "dead on delivery."

Senate bills during the past two years that would create pilot springs protection programs died in committees. Constantine said the time for pilot programs and more studies was over. SB 274 as originally filed provided for pilot springs protection programs at Wakulla, Ichetucknee, Rainbow and Silver springs.

Under the bill as rewritten Tuesday, all counties with springs that discharge more than 6,460,000 gallons per day -- those are the 33 "first-magnitude" springs and 191 "second-magnitude springs" -- would be designated as springs protection zones. Advanced septic systems and sewage treatment plants eventually will be required in those counties.

Those counties could ask the state to adjust the boundaries of the springs protection zone with scientific information that shows the groundwater is not vulnerable, Constantine said.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection would develop a model fertilizer use ordinance that would be required in those counties and encouraged in other counties. Phosphorus would be virtually eliminated from lawn fertilizers. Livestock operations would be required to have lined lagoons to prevent wastewater from reaching groundwater.

Frank Matthews, representing the Association of Florida Community Developers, said the requirement for advanced septic systems could cost $12,000 to $15,000 per home. The cost for such septic and advanced sewage treatment systems in the Wekiva River Basin was projected at $200 million, he said.

"The scope of the legislation is enormous," Matthews told the committee. He told FloridaEnvironments.com that he wasn't the lobbyist who said the bill was dead.

"We think we all recognize there is no funding," he told the committee. "To achieve it becomes a matter of private party landowner project development cost. It becomes a stark reality how to wrestle with balancing these objectives."

But Constantine said the numbers Matthews was using were "miscalculations" assuming that all septic tanks would have to be replaced immediately at a cost of $15,000 each. He said he has bids showing that the cost of the new systems at $7,500, which he said is about $2,500 more than standard septic systems.

"It's a much more reasonable number than $200 million," Constantine said.

Representatives of the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties said they support the bill but had concerns about the costs and deadlines for compliance. The Florida Home Builders Association says a planned state study of less expensive advanced septic systems is needed.

Janet Bowman, representing The Nature Conservancy, said Florida has purchased 53,600 acres of conservation lands to protect springs since 1990. "That makes it (Springs protection) all the more important not just to water quality in general but protecting the state's investment," she said.

The bill next goes to the Senate committees on community affairs and general government appropriations, and Constantine said the bill could face a tougher fight in other committees. But he said the experienced senators who will be leaving because of term limits in two years have an obligation to protect Florida's heritage.

"What makes Florida unique is our springs," Constantine said. "The reason people move here is because of the idea of Florida. That is the commercial and economic impact of this -- not that we can't afford to protect it. We can't afford not to protect it."

Map Source: Florida Geological Survey, via http://www.gly.fsu.edu/~donoghue/activities.html
Text copyright by Bruce Ritchie, FloridaEnvironments.com

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wildlife agency proposes turtle harvest ban

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is proposing what it says is the most comprehensive rule in the United States to protect freshwater turtles.

In response to biologists' concerns that turtles were being shipped to Asian markets for food, the agency staff is proposing a rule to ban the commercial take or sale of wild freshwater turtles. The draft rule also would prohibit taking turtles from the wild that are listed on Florida's imperiled species list.

The draft rule will be considered by the commission at its April 15 meeting in Tallahassee.

"I think the rule is great," said biologist Matt Aresco, who signed a letter with other biologists last year calling for an end to the commercial harvest of turtles. "It is going to be the best rule in the country to protect freshwater turtles if indeed it is adopted by commissioners."

Individuals could still collect one turtle per day. Common snapping turtles and cooters are among the turtles that could not be collected because they are on the imperiled species list or they look like species that are on the list.

Concerns were raised last year after The Gainesville Sun reported on concerns about large numbers of turtles being harvested in sacks from Newnan's Lake near Gainesville. Thirty-four scientists, including Aresco, sent a letter to the commission a year ago asking for restrictions on turtle harvesting, saying that the commercial take was unsustainable and was a threat the future of some species.

''For the same reason that it is illegal to kill female sea turtles on a nesting beach, it is a very bad idea to take adult turtles in large numbers from any ecosystem,'' the scientists said. ``Turtles are extremely slow to reproduce and have very low success rates of nests and hatchlings.''

There was no limit on the unlisted turtle harvest other than closed seasons until October, when the commission in October voted to allow five turtles to be harvested per day and 15 softshell turtles. But that prompted criticism from the biologists and environmentalists. Turtle harvesters argued there were plenty of turtles in the state's waterways.

But Gov. Charlie Crist in November wrote to the commission asking for an end to harvesting. Staff determined that the continued harvesting was a threat to turtle populations.

“Few places in North America have the rich diversity of turtles that we have here in Florida, and this proposed rule ensures their long-term survival,” Tim Breault, the commission's director of habitat and species conservation, said in a news release.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bill abolishing state planning department gets OK

A House committee today gave initial approval to a proposed bill that would abolish the Florida Department of Community Affairs, a move facing opposition from a coalition of environmental groups.

The Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee voted 12-3 in support of the bill, which also would roll back roads and schools requirements for new developments and reduce state oversight of land-use changes.

Groups including 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club signed a letter opposing the transfer of DCA's planning and housing divisions to the Department of State, saying that the move would lead to the effective end of growth management in Florida.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary and committee vice chairman, denied the proposal itself would lead to reduced state planning. But several committee members, including a few voting for the bill, said still they didn't understand the benefits of abolishing DCA.

"I am hearing from my constituents, and overwhelmingly what I'm hearing is support for DCA as a separate and independent agency," said Rep. Ron Schultz, R -Homosassa. "I hope that both I and my constituents will hear more convincing arguments in the coming weeks on that."

Dorworth said he'd also received many calls and e-mails from residents outside of his district who were responding based on misinformation.

The bill would abolish the Department of Community Affairs and transfer the Division of Community Planning and the Division of Housing and Community Development to the Department of State. DCA's Office of Emergency Management would be created within the executive office of the governor.

The Division of Community Planning now oversees major land-use decisions by cities and counties. Environmentalists say DCA Secretary Tom Pelham has made enemies among development interests for opposing bad construction projects.

Abolishing the department is not enough to remove barriers to development, Richard Gentry, representing Associated Industries of Florida, told the House committee members.

"You haven't really accomplished anything if you chop it up and send it to State if you don't look at some of the substantive laws that may very well remain in place," Gentry said.

Outside the meeting, Gentry said the association does not support abolishing DCA, rather the group is waiting to see how growth laws are changed by the Legislature. But he also said there have been complaints among developers against DCA for taking "very difficult positions" on land-use changes.

"Unless you are dealing with the basic structure of the Growth Management Act, I think you could send it to the Department of Agriculture and you might get, in many instances, the same result," Gentry said.

Inside the hearing room, most speakers talked about the need for reversing growth management reforms enacted under Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005. Those reforms required that schools and roads be in place or ready to build before new developments are approved.

DCA Secretary Tom Pelham and developers seem to agree that the roads requirement has unintentionally encouraged more development in rural areas outside of cities. But DCA opposes the bill because it weakens growth management in many ways, a department spokesman said today.

Audubon of Florida representative Charles Lee said sloppy mortgage lending practices -- not growth management -- had created a slowdown in Florida's housing market.

"We are currently in a situation in Florida where it would be hard to argue we need the wrong kind of growth," said Charles Lee. "Support growth management."

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said he would like to support the bill but he had not heard a compelling argument for abolishing DCA. He voted against the bill in the 12-3 committee vote.

Dorworth said opponents were wrong in suggesting that there was no need to transfer the planners to the Department of State and that it would result in a substantive policy change.

"I think our responsiibiltiy as elected officials is to constantly govern and make the most efficient use of taxpayer dollars possible," Dorworth said.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Capitol Bytes: Environmental recognitions abound

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist received a conservation achievement award from the National Wildlife Federation and the Florida Wildlife Federation. Crist was recognized for his role in conservation including encouraging the South Florida Water Management District's recent approval of the purchase of 180,000 acres from the U.S. Sugar Corp. for Everglades restoration. During a ceremony at the Governor's Club near the Capitol, Crist thanked the groups for the award and said he remained committed to keeping the state beautiful. “We must take action in our lifetime to protect Florida’s treasures – from the Everglades and the white-sand beaches to the crystal clear springs – so that future generations can experience the Florida we love,” Crist said, according to a statement issued by the Governor's Office.

Tomoka Basin State Parks biologist Charles DuToit has been named "resource manager of the year" by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. DuToit is charged with protecting natural and cultural resources at five state parks totaling 10,000 acres in Flagler, Putnam and Volusia counties. DuToit coordinated a multi-partner marsh restoration, securing 770 acres and 16 miles of mosquito-control ditches during the last five years. The award is named for former DEP biologist Jim Stevenson, who DuToit worked under at DEP for eight years after being hired in 1979. DuToit said Stevenson's vision of "The Real Florida" left a "very deep" impression on him. But DEP Secretary Mike Sole told the governor and Cabinet during a ceremony today that DuToit likewise had played a similar role. "He mentioned that Jim Stevenson has been a role model for him," Sole said. "The reality is after 30 years he has turned into that role model and has been a mentor to others."

The divers who have explored and mapped more than 30 miles of cave connected to Wakulla Springs were honored by the governor and Cabinet today. More than a decade of discoveries by the Woodville Karst Plain Project increased public understanding of the spring drainage area and led the Wakulla County Commission in the 1990s to enact the state's first springs protection zone. The divers, whose group works on donated time and money from the public, also broke world records for the longest underwater cave dives. But the exploration is more than an extreme sport, said Jim Stevenson, a former DEP biologist and coordinator of the Wakulla Springs Working Group. "While the rest of us have been comfortably going about our business in the warm Florida sunshine, they have been searching in the darkness for the next opening in the limestone aquifer, the next undiscovered cave channeling water to Wakulla Springs and remaining deep underwater in the cold for an additional 15 hours decompressing at the end of the dive," Stevenson said.

Gov. Charlie Crist today declined to weigh in on a draft bill that would transfer state planners from the Florida Department of Community Affairs to the Department of State. The proposed committee bill was met with an outcry Monday from environmental groups who suggested that development interests were targeting DCA for blocking bad development projects. But Crist told reporters it's too early in the legislative session to comment on many bills. "I don't think it's even been heard in committee so that would fall into the category of not opining too early," Crist said. The House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee is expected to consider the draft committee bill on Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.

Former CIA director says renewable energy needed

By Bruce Ritchie

Saying that renewable energy and system reliability together are a matter of national security, former CIA Director James Woolsey urged Florida legislators today to allow rules making it easier for renewable energy providers to make a profit.

The existing power system is too sensitive to storms and could easily be damaged by terrorists or Internet attackers, said Woolsey, who was CIA director from 1993 to 1995 under President Clinton. Creating a "distributed" system of smaller energy providers, Woolsey said, would protect service to a larger number of customers.

"All of these vulnerabilities come together in the way the grid is constructed today," he said. "In the interest of security, quite apart from any issue about becoming green or (carbon dioxide) emissions ... we really need to move, I believe strongly, toward distributed-generation and a grid that is far more resilient than it is today."

House and Senate committees are considering a Florida Public Service Commission recommendation to require that 20 percent of electricity in Florida be produced from renewable resources by 2020. An energy bill adopted by the Legislature last year requested the PSC recommendation.

Woolsey told committees that a so-called "feed-in tariff" system will encourage renewable energy by allowing developers, farmers and homeowners to make a profit from excess energy produced by solar panels, windmills and other renewable energy systems and sold back to utilities.

Gainesville has adopted a feed-in tariff system, Woolsey said, and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said he is sponsoring HB 1317 to require a feed-in tariff system statewide.

The Florida Public Service Commission last year adopted a "net metering" policy requiring utilities to buy back power but not at a monthly profit to customers under a feed-in tariff system, Fitzgerald said.

Several legislators questioned the cost of relying on renewable energy. Woolsey said renewable energy has become competitive with the higher utility rates in California and could become competitive in other states because of cheaper new technology and continuing rate increases for traditional forms of electricity.

Nevertheless, Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville and chairman of the Senate Committee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities, said renewable energy will need financial incentives to increase their use. And how much that will cost the state -- and where the money will come from -- is unknown, he said.

"It's a matter of priorities," King said. "Even with all the (budget) cuts and everything we are making this year, we are still going to spend over $60 billion. Somewhere along the line we will have to prioritize what part of that $60 billion or some subsequent year's $60 billion we are going to allocate on renewable sources. If we don't, we are not going to have the renewable sources."

Top photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Text and bottom photo of Woolsey copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Draft bill would dismantle land-planning agency

By Bruce Ritchie

A draft House committee bill that would move Florida's land-planning agency into the Department of State was met by an outcry Monday from environmentalists who called it an attempt by legislators and developers to punish state planners.

The Florida Department of Community Affairs, which includes state land-planners, faces a "sunset" review by the Legislature. A proposed draft bill circulated Friday by the House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee would effectively dismantle DCA by moving the Division of Community Planning into the Department of State, which also includes divisions of elections and historical resources.

Rep. Dorothy L. Hukill, R-Port Orange and committee chairwoman, was not available for comment today, according to an aide. The widely-circulated draft bill, labeled "embargoed" on Friday, was not posted on her committee's Web site Monday.

The proposal drew criticism today in a Tampa Tribune editorial and from environmental group representatives, who say construction interests are targeting DCA because it has blocked bad development proposals.

"It's a bad idea," said Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategies for the Nature Conservancy's Florida Chapter. "It's one of those situations where DCA is being picked on without basis."

Audubon of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida also criticized the draft bill.

The Department of Community Affairs reviews major development projects and land-planning proposals by cities and counties for compliance with state law. Environmentalists say the agency has been more inclined to deny bad projects under Secretary Tom Pelham and Gov. Charlie Crist.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association said her group was not pushing the proposal.

"We just found out about it this afternoon," said Edie Ousley, the group's communications director. "We don't have a position on it. It's not anything to do with us."

Pelham and other DCA officials today were still reviewing the draft legislation, said James Miller, a department spokesman. He said the department received the draft bill on Friday.

Senate President Jeff Atwater today said DCA is "playing an important role and doing a fine job" but he left open the door for a debate on its dismantling. He said the future of the department is being discussed only because it is up for review.

Asked whether DCA should remain an independent agency, he said, "That is where I would naturally take a look at this."

"If the debate comes along and the arguments and case is made to take a closer look at it (moving DCA to the Department of State), we shall," Atwater said. "That is how the process works."

A representative of the Association of Florida Community Developers could not be reached for comment. Also not available was Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who was named in the Tribune editorial for targeting DCA in the past.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Florida Environments.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Crist bottled-water tax draws fire in House

By Bruce Ritchie

Members of a House committee today criticized Gov. Charlie Crist's proposal to tax water-bottling, saying it's a threat to jobs and could lead to a similar tax on agricultural water use.

As part of his proposed $66.5 billion budget for 2009-10, the state would collect 6 cents per gallon on water-bottling plants. The $66 million per year would be spent to develop alternative water supplies, set pollution limits for waterways and provide grants for local sewage treatment improvements.

During a House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee meeting, Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and committee chairman, and Rep. Leonard L. Bembry, D-Greenville, raised concerns about the proposal.

Bembry said it could cost jobs in his district, which includes the Nestle Waters North American bottling plant in Madison County. Rep. Debbie Boyd, a Newberry Democrat whose district includes a water-pumping operation at Ginnie Springs, also questioned the tax.

"It could have a tremendous impact on the people that are hired," Bembry said "That represents a concern for an industry we have in my district."

But John Mitchell, environmental coordinator in the governor's Office of Policy and Budget, said there were no plans to tax other industries including agriculture and water utilities, whose water use, he said, was different than bottled water.

Unlike those industries, water-bottling plants take a public commodity and sell it for private profit in the marketplace, Mitchell said.

Other industries, he said, use water only as an ingredient in production. And water utilities don't charge for the water they sell, they only charge for the service of providing it to their customers.

"This is a distinctively different consumptive use," Mitchell said. "It's taking a public resource and bottling it for sale. There is no idea at all to talk about assessing fees on other consumptive uses."

Despite that explanation, Poppell echoed the concerns of Boyd and Bembry that the tax could be applied to other water users, especially agriculture.

"There's been an attempt for years to move agriculture into a system of purchasing (water)," Poppell said. "If you get into charging agriculture in the state of Florida for water, you are going to take a $100 billion a year industry and kill it. It is something we need to be careful of."

Mitchell said he understood their sensitivity but added that another revenue source is needed to replace declining revenue from the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions.

"The very product that we're talking about placing the fee on is absolutely dependent on these projects and these programs, which serve to protect Florida water and keep it clean," Mitchell said.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Nature Conservancy report pegs value of land-buying

By Bruce Ritchie

With the state's land-buying program having dodged a bullet in January, The Nature Conservancy today released a report saying that the program plays a vital role in the state's economy.

Florida has conserved more than 500,000 acres since 2000 under the Florida Forever program, which receives $300 million annually. But the program was sharply cut in January when the Legislature met in special session to address a revenue deficit caused by the economic downturn.

Gov. Charlie Crist has proposed full funding for the program again in 2009-10, but his budget proposal relies on nearly $5 billion from the federal economic stimulus bill that most Republicans in Congress opposed. Florida's House and Senate leaders are cautioning against depending on the federal money without making spending cuts.

The Nature Conservancy report said Florida's tourism pumps $65 billion annually into the economy and depends on natural resources protection. With almost 21 million visitors a year, Florida's 161 state parks give the state economy a $1-billion economic shot in the arm, according to the report.

"Tourism, hunting and wildlife viewing generate significant tax revenues and jobs and connect millions of people to Florida's natural heritage," Rob Southwick of Southwick Associates, a firm that analyzes the economics of outdoor recreation, said in a statement accompanying the report. "These activities are a real treasure and a bargain for Florida."

State parks also created 20,100 jobs and generated more than $70 million annual from sales taxes to the state, according to The Nature Conservancy. The report also identified economic benefits from Florida Forever hunting and fishing, water quality, coastal protection and the role of state lands in military training.

Key House and Senate members could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon as legislative committees were meeting.

The Nature Conservancy said the report will be used to urge legislators to fully fund Florida Forever during the legislative session, which began this week.

To read the report, click on the following link:

Monday, March 2, 2009

Groups give state C grade on oceans protection

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida's efforts to reverse the decline of coastal and ocean resources earned only a C grade today from a coalition of environmental groups who want the state to show more national leadership on ocean issues.

The coalition of seven groups called on Florida to restrict development in sensitive coastal areas, establish an ocean and coastal policy office and re-establish its opposition to oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

"The coasts are the bedrock of Florida's economic engine," said Gary Appelson, policy director of the Caribbean Conservation Corp. and the Sea Turtle Survival League. "We cannot continue to build along the coast as we have been in the past."

The "report card" rated the state on its progress toward meeting recommendations in eight policy areas set out by the coalition in its 2006 "Blueprint for Economic and Environmental Leadership."

Here are the grades given Monday in each area:
Curb unwise coastal development (C+)
Reduce coastal and ocean pollution (C+)
Keep offshore drilling away from Florida's coast (D)
Restore marine ecosystems through ecosystem-based management (D)
Ensure robust fisheries (B-)
Conserve protected marine species (B)
Reduce global warming pollution (A-)
Strengthen governance on ocean issues (D)

The groups credited Gov. Charlie Crist for taking a national leadership role in reducing global warming pollution. In 2007, Crist signed three executive orders calling for pollution reductions from electric utilities and automobiles and he pushed for approval of a comprehensive energy bill in the 2008 legislative session.

But the groups also pointed out that Crist, during the 2008 presidential election, supported Republican John McCain's call for oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, though Crist later said drilling must be far enough away to protect Florida's beaches and tourism. The groups said a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that expired last year should be re-established to protect the coast and the state's tourism economy.

"On most issues we agree with the Governor's Office," said Joe Murphy, Florida program director for the Gulf Restoration Network. "We are hopeful on this issue he will revisit this and agree with previous governors going back 20 years that protecting Florida's economy, environment and military programs are the most important things that can be done."

The groups faulted the National Park Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for failing to implement ecosystem-based management in the Biscayne Bay National Park and the adjoining state preserve. As a result, both areas now are managed as nothing more than "paper parks," the groups said.

Other states, including California, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, have moved forward with establishing marine reserves where fishing is prohibited and other marine protected areas. But Florida has not established marine protected areas within its 41 state aquatic preserves, the groups said.

"We sadly conclude the state has made no progress in the past year or two on restoring marine ecosystems through ecosystem-based management," said David White, regional director for The Ocean Conservancy.

DEP appreciates the coalition's comments, a department spokesman said. DEP also issued a detailed response, including that the D grade regarding oil drilling may not reflect the present reality that drilling isn't actually taking place.

Regarding the need for marine protected areas, DEP responded that its Coral Reef Conservation Program is helping protect 239,000 acres from Biscayne National Park to St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County. However, White, of the Ocean Conservancy, said neither DEP nor the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission are addressing overfishing in that area.

The department said it has established recommended practices for coastal construction. And on oceans governance, DEP said it held workshops in 2008 to receive input on priorities and goals for a federal Gulf of Mexico Alliance plan that will be put out later this year.

"Certainly at DEP we can always work to improve ourselves," Press Secretary Doug Tobin said. "We look at the report card as a way of improving what we do to protect Florida's vital resources."

Reporter's Note: An earlier version incorrectly stated the area covered by DEP's Coral Reef Conservation Program. I regret the error.

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.