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.

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