Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Walton County restoration featured in "Wildlands Philanthropy" book

By Bruce Ritchie

M.C. Davis said he'd forgotten the visit about six years ago by a photographer and author who interviewed him and took photographs of his property, about 48,000 acres in Walton County.

Tom Butler and photographer Antonio Vizcaino were working on "Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition." The 322-page coffee table book describes the likes of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who contributed to the creation of Arcadia, Grand Tetons and Smoky Mountain national parks, and the Mellons, who helped conserve more than 2 million acres in Alaska.

On the Florida Panhandle, Davis was working to restore the former farmland and timber company property called Nokuse Plantation (pronounced Neh GOH zee, an indian word for bear). He's spent $50 million buying the property, taking out ditches and dams that disrupted water flow and removing trees that aren't suitable for the pine sand hills. He's restoring rare longleaf pine and has brought in more than 2,000 gopher tortoises, whose burrows provided habitat for numerous other wildlife species.

Yet Davis, a land-speculator turned "nature nut," didn't think he could rank among the titans of conservation who would be featured in the book. Yet, he saw himself in it when copies were sent to him in November.

"When you see the quality of our neighbors it's really a humbling experience," Davis told Florida's Acquisition and Restoration Council earlier this month.

"Wildlands Philanthropy" seeks to celebrate the American tradition of private individuals working to protect land and nature for the public, said Butler, who lives in Vermont. He also is editorial projects director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

At a time when many people are struggling because of the economic downturn, Butler said individuals of lesser means still can support conservation by helping at local parks or contributing to groups such as The Nature Conservancy, which preserve lands.

"You think of a place like Muir Woods National Park or Grand Tetons National Park or the Smokies -- they are the embodiment of our idea of 'America the Beautiful,' " Butler said. "And they exist in whole or in part because of private philanthropy. The motivating part for us is to help encourage and expand this tradition of private philanthropy toward saving natural areas."

Notably missing from the book is Ted Turner, who owns more than 25,000 acres in Jefferson County and about 2 million across the United States. While Turner is restoring red-cockaded woodpeckers, wolves and bison to some of his properties, Butler notes that he also is not necessarily managing them as permanent preserves or as parks for public use.

Lane Green, executive director of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy near Tallahassee, said he thinks Turner and other landowners are playing an important conservation role on private lands.

"Conservation isn't just government's business," Green said. "It has to have a private component. Government can't and shouldn't buy up everything."

The areas featured in "Wildlands Philanthropy" are preserved as wilderness, Butler said. That's not completely the case yet at Nokuse Plantation, where Davis has heavy equipment being used to clear cut rows of planted slash and sand pines to replace them with nearly 5 million longleaf pines, restoring a disappearing forest ecosystem.

But Butler notes that the logging is part of the ongoing restoration. Davis told state officials that their purchase of a conservation easement on Nokuse Plantation helped pay for the work. Conservation easements involve providing payments or other incentives for landowners not to develop.

The state and federal governments in 2004 purchased a conservation easement on 16,751 acres for $17.2 million. The Nature Conservancy now is asking the state to consider buying a conservation easement on 14,609 acres at Seven Runs Creek.

"The money derived from it, as always, I'm recycling it back into nature," Davis told the state Acquisition and Restoration Council earlier this month. "I'm not making any money. I'm delighted to make a bargain sale. I think this is probably the biggest bang for the buck."

The Air Force supports the project because it prevents development under the flight patterns of the fighter aircraft at nearby Eglin Air Force Base. Environmentalists say Davis provides a shining example of environmental stewardship in the region.

"In this economy, it is an outstanding committment," said Richard Hilsenbeck of The Nature Conservancy. "You can't say enough good about what is going on there."

Davis also is paying for construction of the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center at Nokuse Plantation to teach Walton County students about the local wildlife and ecology. He said it's an opportunity to expose the public and youth to the nature that previous generations grew up with.

"How are you going to love something and how are going to save it?" he said. "You are not going to save it unless you love it. And you are not going to love it unless you are exposed to it."

Contact Bruce Ritchie at brucebritchie@gmail.com or at 850-385-1774.

Top photo by Antonio Vizcaino courtesy of Earth Aware Editions.
Photo of M.C. Davis and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Analysts see slowing increase in Florida's population

By Bruce Ritchie

The nationwide economic downturn is causing Florida's population growth to drop significantly this year and in coming years, population experts say.

Florida every year since 1990 has added the equivalent of Miami's population -- about 395,000 people, legislative staffer Amy Baker told House members last week. But that annual population growth rate of up to 2.6 percent dropped to 0.7 percent this year.

Growth could stay that low for a couple more years before leveling off at about 1.1 percent -- about half of what the rate increase had been, Baker said.

Still, "1.1 (percent) is very strong growth," she said. "Instead of a city the size of Miami every year, (it's a) a city the size of St. Petersburg of every year."

St. Petersburg's estimated population in 2007 was 253,369, according to the University of Florida.

Fewer people moving to Florida could mean less less pressure to build new roads, schools, hospitals and shopping centers. One growth-management advocate says areas now designated for development may not be needed in the future.

Florida legislators are grappling with a projected $2.3 billion budget deficit this year caused by declining state revenue. A large chunk of the deficit is caused by declining tax revenue collected from the sale of property.

"Florida's population growth typically in the past has slowed during recessions as it is in this recession," said Stanley K. Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

"The lion's share of growth comes from migration," Smith said. "During recessions fewer people move into the state both because of declining job opportunities and difficulties in selling their homes. What we are seeing now is not unusual in the sense these types of slowdowns typically occur during recessions."

Charles Pattison of the growth management advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida said the slowing growth points to the need to develop in the right places. Those are areas where schools, roads and other government services are available as opposed to areas beyond the edges of cities.

The slowing growth, he said, also should encourage local governments and residents to reassess land development patterns, which he added may be based now on unrealistic population growth rates. But he also said that local governments have shied away from reducing allowed growth because of fear of facing a property rights challenge.

Charles Gauthier of the Florida Department of Community Affairs agrees there are legal restrictions on scaling back zoning. But he said reduced population growth may make it more difficult for local governments to justify new infrastructure projects -- or adopt future land-use map amendments.

"That could be one of the most primary visible effects of this," said Gauthier, director of DCA's Division of Community Planning.

Florida home builders now are struggling with the recession and existing regulations without facing more growth restrictions, said Edie Ousley, communications director of the Florida Home Builders Association.

"We need to make sure the business climate is amicable to putting people into housing and into homes which produces revenue for the state coffers," she said.

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Crist offers support for springs bill

By Bruce Ritchie

Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday voiced support for state legislation intended to protect Florida's springs, saying they're an important part of the state's tourism economy.

The Tampa Tribune Monday published an editorial urging support for a bill filed by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, that would established "protection zones" around four Florida springs. A similar bill introduced earlier this year by Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, died in the Legislature.

Asked whether he would support a stronger push for the bill in the coming year, Crist said, "Yeah, sure I would."

"I love our springs and our rivers and our estuaries," Crist said. "I think it's important to do everything we can, not only from an environmental point of view to keep Florida beautiful -- it helps our economy too. Tourism is important."

Constantine, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, said he's introduced Saunders' bill as a "placeholder" this year until a new springs bill can be written.

Saunders' bill required the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to establish springs protection boundaries around Silver and Rainbow springs in Marion County. He let it die after some builders voiced concerns about the cost of advanced septic systems to protect groundwater flowing from springs.

Constantine's bill also would include Ichetucknee Springs in Columbia County and Wakulla Springs in Wakulla County. They were included in a failed springs bill that was introduced in 2007 by then Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon.

State agencies, water-management districts and local governments are required under Constantine's bill to cooperatively set pollution limits within the springs' protection boundaries.

"We are not concentrating or spending enough time on our springs," Constantine told the Ocala Star-Banner earlier this month. "We are losing these valuable resources. I honestly feel this could be the first step and look at the water policy we need for protection and growth. This could be a broader opportunity."

Crist said Florida's tourist attractions may be more appealing as the rest of the country shivers through a cold winter.

"I don't know if you watched TV this week or this weekend and have seen what it's like up North," he said. "I think a lot of people are going to be coming to Florida, and I certainly hope they do."

Contact independent journalist Bruce Ritchie at 850-385-1774 or at brucebritchie@embarqmail.com .
Photo and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Progress Energy to take out two coal plants

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida's top environmental official is praising Progress Energy for an agreement with the state to retire two coal-fired power plants at its Crystal River plant after another proposed nuclear plant has been operating, possibly in 2020. But a leading environmentalist is only giving the agreement a B-plus grade because it doesn't promote renewable energy.

The two coal plants have been operating since the 1960s. Removing them from service would reduce carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 830,000 vehicles, according to Progress Energy.

"This agreement will help us deliver on our promise to reduce emissions without sacrificing reliable and affordable electric service," Jeff Lyash, president and CEO of Progress Florida, said in a statement issued by the company.

Progress Florida has filed a license application with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to operate the proposed new nuclear plant on 5,000 acres in southern Levy County, about 10 miles north of the company's Crystal River complex. That's where the company has four coal-fired units and one nuclear units.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a statement praising the agreement to remove the older coal-fired units. DEP says it is working with the company to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the newer coal-fired units at Crystal River that were built in the 1980s.

"By combining the ethic of good stewardship and the spirit of innovation, we will continue to improve the quality of our air and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions," DEP Secretary Michael Sole said.

Gerald Karnas, Florida climate project director for the Environmental Defense Fund, said the agreement will remove two of the nation's dirtiest coal plants and help protect against climate change. But he said Progress Energy should replace them with solar, wind and wave energy projects rather than nuclear.

"Retiring those (coal) plants is a big win for our planet," Karnas said. "But it's a draw in that Progress Energy is not replacing the power with renewable energy. They are banking on a risky strategy of building nucealr power plants at tremendous cost to consumers."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ag Commissioner Bronson warns against budget cuts

By Bruce Ritchie

Cutting the budget of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services budget by 10 percent would have a "devastating impact" on his department and state residents, Charles Bronson, Florida's elected agriculture commissioner, said Tuesday.

Legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Crist have asked agencies to outline 10-percent spending cuts for next year because of reduced tax revenue caused by the slowing economy. Agencies also have been asked to identify 4-percent cuts in this year's budget.

Bronson told the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee that to achieve the 10 percent reduction, he recommends closing an agriculture inspection station on Interstate 10 in Pensacola and reducing inspections of show animals in Florida and citrus crops bound for other countries -- all measures that he suggested threaten jobs or reduce public safety.

Bronson proposed cutting 20 positions for inspectors at weekend animal sales shows and sales to reduce spreading of animal disease. And he proposes cutting 61 field positions for a savings of $1 million from the Division of Plant Industry, including 22 in the plant inspection program, including citrus products.

The cuts, he said, would have a "great impact" on the state's nursery industry and could undermine sales to other states.

"Other states rely on us to do our job here to inspect," he said. There have been few problems in the past, he said, because other states "know the program we run."

Closing the Pensacola inspection station "totally leaves Northwest Florida open to almost anything" traveling across state lines in trucks, Bronson said. Such inspection stations, he said, are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year inspecting crops and livestock for pests, with inspectors sometimes finding drugs, stolen goods or weapons and illegal aliens.

"Disease doesn't shut down," Bronson said. "Pests don't shut down and homeland security issues don't shut down at any time during the day. So trying to keep those open with the right kind of manpower there is a tough proposition."

The Pensacola station was opened in 2006. But Bronson said if the station wasn't closed and positions were cut from other inspection stations, several of them would have to close.

He said the overall recommendations would save $5.2 million in general revenue and $9.3 million from trust funds.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and committee chairman, told Bronson he was concerned about the cuts in the inspection stations. After the meeting, Poppell said his committee would make recommendations to the House leadership on what cuts should occur.

"We may not have to cut as deep into one program as you think," he said. "But we are going to be looking at everything."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Crist, Audubon praise Everglades purchase

By Bruce Ritchie

The South Florida Water Management District board today voted 4-3 to acquire more than 180,000 acres of agricultural land for Everglades restoration from the United States Sugar Corp., contingent upon an amendment to the negotiated purchase and sale contract.

According to the district, the state will buy the land for $1.34 billion. Under a separate agreement, U.S. Sugar would lease and manage the land for agricultural operation for seven years, helping the district avoid more than $40 million in land management costs.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for restoration," district board Chairman Eric Buermann said in an agency news release. "The immense environmental benefit of these lands and their value to Florida's unique Everglades ecosystem cannot be overstated."

“This land acquisition is the most important step in the history of true Everglades restoration," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. "Today’s action is a result of the courage and tenacity of so many, and I thank God for the vision and leadership of those who brought us to this moment."

"We are pleased the (board) voted yes to purchase U.S. Sugar's land in the Everglades Agricultural Area for Everglades restoration, and we look forward to working to ensure money is identified to fund the contract," Audubon of Florida Executive Director David Anderson said.

For more information on the purchase, go to the SFWMD web site at swfwmd.state.fl.us/ .

Study shows conservation measures could slash energy use

By Bruce Ritchie

Floridians could reduce summer peak energy demand equivalent to the output of more than 10 new nuclear power units, according to preliminary study results presented Monday to the Florida Public Service Commission.

The Itron consulting group of Oakland, Ca., analyzed the technical potential of various energy conservation alternatives. The consultants said summer peak energy use theoretically could be reduced by 14,000 megawatts in the residential, commercial and industrial sectors using all potential conservation measures.

But the study, which was paid for by the state's seven largest utilities, didn't analyze the economic potential of the various alternatives. That analysis will occur next year prior to the setting of conservation goals in April 2009.

The seven largest utilities paid for the study, which is performed periodically under Florida law. Two environmental groups, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council, also collaborated in the study.

The utilities will use the studies to finalize goals in May 2009 for reducing peak energy demand.

Sixty-one percent of the energy conservation could be achieved in homes compared to 34 percent in commercial buildings and 5 percent in industrial settings, according to the study.

The use of compact fluorescent light bulbs is one of the cheapest household conservation measures. Double-pained windows with film to reduce solar heating could be key to keeping homes cool in the summer, said Mike Ting, a consultant with Itron.

"They are not necessarily providing insulation power," Ting said. "They are preventing solar heating gain."

High-efficiency water heaters were identified among the more expensive conservation measures.

Chris Maingot, legislative chair for the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, said the study appeared to have overpriced the cost of home solar water heaters. And he said home solar electric systems were not included in the study results.

"Utilities told them not to include it (solar electric)," said Suzanne Brownless, an attorney representing the association.

Ting said solar electric was not included in the initial study requested by the utilities but will be included in the final study results at the request of Public Service Commission staff. He referred questions about the initial request to Florida Power & Light Co. A company spokesman said solar photovoltaic was initially excluded because of the high out-of-pocket expenses.

Tom Larson, Florida energy policy manager for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said he hopes the study encourages companies and investors to see the value in producing conservation technologies for the marketplace.

He said environmental groups want to make sure energy-saving measures are not excluded too quickly by the conservative investor-owned utilities.

"We are in kind of an interesting position where we want to try to be as close to the study as we can yet remain a little bit circumspect," he said. "I think they (utilities) are glad to have us in that dialogue but we are not all holding arms and marching together."

Contact Reporter Bruce Ritchie at brucebritchie@gmail.com or 850-385-1774.

Text copyright by Bruce Ritchie. Photo of compact fluorescent bulbs courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Crist pens plea for Everglades purchase

By Bruce Ritchie

Gov. Charlie Crist Monday night sent a letter to members of the South Florida Water Management District board urging them to support the proposed purchase of 180,000 acres from the U.S. Sugar Corp.

The district board is scheduled to hear testimony on the purchase and vote on the matter today. In a deal initially arranged last June by Crist, the district would purchase the land for $1.34 billion.

But the deal has come under fire from the Florida Farm Bureau, former Gov. Bob Graham and communities in Glades County. Graham questions whether the state is paying too much.

However, Crist said the purchase creates "unprecedented opportunities" for restoring the Everglades, dubbed the "River of Grass" by author Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Homes, farms and drainage ditches have shrunk the Everglades to half its former size, according to the Palm Beach Post.

"The historic nature of this moment cannot be lost," Crist wrote Monday. "I would urge that our focus remain on the long-term benefits of this acquisition. Your decision will have an impact not just for seven years but for the next 700 years and beyond."

Friday, December 12, 2008

State land purchases considered in five counties

By Bruce Ritchie

A state panel today recommended adding more than 24,000 acres in five counties to the state list of proposed conservation purchases.

The proposals come at a time when the state is struggling with a nearly $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in this year's budget. The 2008-09 budget includes $300 million for purchases under the Florida Forever land-buying program.

The projects would include 14,609 acres near Eglin Air Force Base in Walton County, where conservationist M.C. Davis is seeking to restore wildlife habitat at Seven Runs Creek. His proposal has support from base officials, who want to maintain low housing densities on the ground beneath where its planes fly, along with The Nature Conservancy and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

"The Florida Wildlife Federation cannot support a project more strongly than this one," Preston Robertson, the group's general counsel, said during a public hearing Thursday.

Seven Runs Creek is one of three proposed "conservation easements" in which the state would purchase only development rights. The other two are McDaniels' Ranch, with 2,707 acres in Hendry County, and Tiger Cattle Co. Ranch Reserve, with 2,229 acres in Okechobee County.

The two projects that would be outright land purchases are Bear Hammock, with 4,548 acres in Marion County, and Harbor Branch Phase II, with 61 acres in St. Lucie County. The state Acquisition and Restoration Council approved adding the five purchase areas to the Florida Forever land-buying list.

Senators on Wednesday were told by analysts that the state next year is expected to receive only 29 percent of the $4 billion received annually from documentary stamp taxes during the height of the real estate boom. That revenue pays for the bonds issued to pay for Florida Forever land purchases.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and chairman of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, said he would object to the Florida Forever land-buying being cut because of the budget deficit.

"We all understand it is a difficult year, and everything has to be considered," Constantine said. "But that is a commitment we made in statute to the people of the state of Florida."

Copyright Bruce Ritchie

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Analysis: Biomass plant at FSU slipped under the radar

By Bruce Ritchie
The controversy over a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Tallahassee may reveal a flaw in the land-use planning process for state facilities and universities.

More than 150 people on Wednesday attended a City Commission public hearing related to Florida State University's master plan, which includes 21 acres for the plant where wood chips will be heated to create gas.

Some residents raised concerns about possible noise, odors and pollution from the plant. Supporters said the plant will provide renewable energy for Florida and bring "green" jobs to Tallahassee.

But almost no one attended an FSU public hearing earlier this year on the master plan despite it being advertised in a local newspaper. Residents said they only became aware of the proposed plant after news that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed a permit for it.

"I didn't know about this until just the other day," said Jim Guerry, who owns several houses in the neighborhood. "Nobody told me anything."

More than 15 public meetings were held to discuss the proposed plant, Glenn Farris, president and CEO of Biomass Gas & Electric, told the City Commission. His company has a lease with FSU to build the 42-megawatt plant.

But City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey questioned whether the company had done enough to meet with residents since the city agreed in 2006 to purchase power from the company. And Commissioner Andrew Gillum, who said he supports such renewable energy, faulted both the city and company for how the public had been informed.

State statutes let FSU run the public participation process in the master planning process, said Wayne Tedder, director of the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.

If the plant were located on private land, residents within 500 feet of the site would have received notices by mail that there was a site plan review under way.

"I do think this is something in the future we need to look at -- how people were made aware of these plans," Tedder said.

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at brucebritchie@embarqmail.com or at (850) 385-1774.
Photos and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

"Reclaimed" water dispute spills into Florida Senate

Sen. Mike Bennett

By Bruce Ritchie

Disputes between Florida's largest water-management districts and utilities spilled over into the Senate Tuesday as the chairman of the Committee on Community Affairs vowed more scrutiny of the districts.

Some city water utilities are at odds with the three largest water-management districts -- South Florida, Southwest Florida and St. Johns River -- over proposed rules to restrict the utilities' use of treated wastewater, said Rebecca O'Hara, legislative director of the Florida League of Cities.

Some utility customers have been allowed in the past to water their lawns with treated wastewater, also called "reclaimed" water, despite regional restrictions on which days watering can occur.

O'Hara said restrictions are being imposed by water management districts despite substantial investments by utilities and their customers to turn sewage into a useful product. She said the dispute is a top issue for cities.

"Reclaimed water is generated 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she said. "You can't simply just turn off the tap and have watering restrictions on Mondays Wednesday and Fridays. People still take baths on Tuesdays and Thursdays and reclaimed water is generated."

Her remarks prompted Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and committee chairman, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, to launch attacks on the water management districts.

Wise referred to governance of the water districts as "taxation without representation." The districts collect levy property taxes but do not have elected representatives as do cities and counties.

Bennett added, "I've got some serious problems on the governance of water management districts. I think some are totally out of control. Their taxing authority is beyond comprehension to me."

He added, "I think we should take a real hard look over the next couple of years at how we bring them under control."

The St. Johns River Water Management District on Tuesday was considering a rule to require that the use of reclaimed water -- also called water "reuse" -- be limited to the same days in which watering is allowed.

"Reuse needs to be looked at as part of the whole resource," said Mike Slayton, the district's deputy executive director. "We want to spread that resource as far as possible."

But later he said the district's board agreed to take out the restriction after hearing objections from utilities.

Slayton also pointed out that the role of water-management districts was reviewed last year by the Legislature without changes being made to the governance structure.

The South Florida Water Management District is considering a rule that allows reclaimed water use seven days but prohibits its use between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when it is "wasteful" to water, a district spokesman said.

Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, said after the meeting that cities are trying to wrestle control over water away from water management districts contrary to state law.

"That is a huge amount of water for whoever controls it," he said. "It is really no fight. It is the cities behaving as pirates."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Biomass discrimination claim could prove challenging

Burlington Electric's McNeil station in Burlington, Vt., featured a biomass-gasification demonstration project that has since been completed. (Photo by Dave Parsons, courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). At right, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor meets with other opponents of a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Tallahassee.

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida's first biomass electric plant, proposed in Tallahassee and touted as green energy technology by Gov. Charlie Crist and some environmentalists, faces explosive accusations of racial discrimination.

But some legal experts say proving such claims of discrimination in court is tough challenge.

Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. proposes building the 42-megawatt plant on 21 acres of FSU land off Roberts Ave. The plant would electricity to the city and produce enough power for about 24,000 homes.

The Tallahassee City Commission is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a development agreement with FSU that includes the plant site.

Attorney David Ludder, representing the NAACP and four local residents, said the in a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last week that the area has a higher proportion of blacks and non-white residents than overall Leon County.

"The proposed biomass facility will have a disparate impact on nearby African-American and non-White residents," Ludder wrote.

He threatened to file a racial discrimination claim under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That federal law, Ludder wrote, states: "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

But Jim Rossi, a Florida State University law professor, said that just showing a different racial makeup for an area isn't enough to prove such a legal claim.

"If that were alone sufficient evidence that would stop any development on the south side (of Tallahassee)," he said.

And he said he agrees with Joan Flocks, director of the Social Policy Division of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, who said proving such claims of discrimination in environmental justice cases can be difficult in court.

BG&E received approval from the Cabinet in 2006 to build on the site. But some area residents say they didn't know about the project until late October, after the DEP said it intends to issue a permit for the plant.

In response to Ludder's letter, DEP spokeswoman Amy Graham said last week that the department has not issued a permit.

In his letter, Ludder states that 43 percent of residents living within a mile of the proposed plant are black compared to 29 percent for all of Leon County.

Ludder agreed the Supreme Court has required intent to discriminate be proven in such cases in court. But he added that rather than going to court, residents would be asking EPA investigate and to consider whether there were alternatives to locating the plant off Roberts Avenue.

"All the citizens have to do is bring the issue to EPA," he said.

Flocks, who said she was not familiar with the biomass plant in Tallahassee, said the age-old argument that it's cheaper to build landfills or industrial plants in low-income areas with higher minority populations doesn't negate a discrimination claim.

"A lot of where the environmental justice argument comes in is whether people had access to the decision making process: Whether they were denied some kind of procedural justice. Whether they were able to participate in any type of public meeting or had any say in the decision," she said.

Company spokesman James VanLandingham said numerous public meetings have been held to discuss the plant. He said pollution on Tallahassee's south side would be reduced because the plant will supply hydrogen to FSU to operate buses, thereby reducing vehicle traffic in the area.

Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor and 10 other residents filed hearing requests on the proposed DEP permit. The department granted the requests of Proctor but initially denied the others until last week, when it approved five revised requests -- including three of those represented by Ludder. A hearing date has not been set.

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at brucebritchie@gmail.com or at 850-385-1774.

Monday, December 8, 2008

My View: Al Burt, champion of Crackers and Old Florida, will be missed

Al Burt

By Bruce Ritchie

There was a lot of sad news at our household last week, but the saddest may have been the death of author Al Burt.

Al was a Miami Herald reporter and editor before he became a roving columnist for the newspaper in 1973. He chronicled the people and places that would otherwise be lost in the sweep of development across the state.

He made the term "Cracker" a badge of honor in some conservation circles, swiping it back from the column of racial epithets. Writing in The Tropic of Cracker, he said:

"Crackers inhabit the Tropic of Cracker, and they are called that either because they are natives of Florida or because they so love the native things of Florida that they have been naturalized by experience and exposure. People argue about the use of the word 'Cracker' but it does not matter. In Florida, the word comes out of state history.

"Old-time cow hunters drove great herds of cattle across Florida to shipping points, popping long cowhide whips so loudly that they could be heard miles away. Because of this they became known as Crackers.

"The Florida definition has nothing to do with race. It is a tribal feather, not a street slur."

Al Burt's description of the Ichetucknee River now is preserved on a plaque at the head spring inside Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

The Ichetucknee's waters "bubble up out of the ground and flow like melted diamonds across a sandy bottom through a natural forest," he wrote.

My wife, her brother-in-law, Larry, and I ate lunch there on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the day before Al died in Jacksonville from a chronic illness. I wanted the picnic table that was closest to the plaque so that I could absorb some of Al's good vibes.

Florida needs its poets and authors. Knowledge of what's here and recorded memories of what's been lost are the best defenses we have against the grinding change all around us.

Al, we'll miss you here in Florida. But you won't be forgotten.

Contact reporter Bruce Ritchie at brucebritchie@gmail.com or at 850-385-1774.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

DEP grants hearings against renewable energy plant

By Bruce Ritchie

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to hearing requests for five more legal challenges against Florida's first biomass gas electric plant.

Some environmentalists tout the proposed Biomass Gas & Electric plant in Tallahassee as a green energy alternative. Gov. Charlie Crist has described the company's technology of producing gas from wood chips as a source of renewable energy.

But some neighborhood residents are concerned about noise, odor and pollution from the plant.

Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. proposes building the 42-megawatt plant on 21 acres of FSU land off Roberts Ave. The plant would produce enough power for about 24,000 homes.

DEP last week denied 10 petitions requesting hearings but granted a request filed by Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor. Five petitions were resubmitted this week and DEP granted the requests, said Amy Graham, a DEP spokeswoman.

Community activist Bob Fulford, whose request was approved, said Saturday he was pleased.

"I think that's great," he said. "That was my intention -- to have a hearing."

Meanwhile, BG&E this week filed its own request for a hearing, saying that portions of the proposed permit required clarification.

"This is not a peitition for a new hearing," said James VanLandingham, a spokesman for the company. "This is a filing that preserves the company's abilty to clarify issues with the DEP at the hearing which is alredy pending."

Tallahassee Attorney David Ludder sent a letter to DEP warning that he would file a claim against the state for racial discrimination under the federal Civil Rights Act if a permit is issued. He said he represents the NAACP and four area residents.

Department spokeswoman Amy Graham responded by saying that the permit has not been issued.

"The permit is still going through the formal administrative process," she said.

BG&E will host an open house on Monday at Tallahassee Community College to provide information on the plant. The event will be held in the student ballroom from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

The Tallahassee City Commission is scheduled on Wednesday to consider a development agreement with FSU that includes restrictions on lighting and noise from the plant.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Florida communities vie to help seafood industry

By Bruce Ritchie

Twelve Florida communities have applied for grants under a new program that was created to help the state's struggling seafood industry.

The 12 communities are requesting more than $28 million for projects, but only $7.5 million is available this year under the new "working waterfronts" program, according to the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

Two proposed projects are Franklin County, including $1.7 million requested to purchase land for a parking area and boat ramp along Patton Drive in Eastpoint. In Apalachicola, the city is requesting $1 million to buy a 6,000-square foot metal building will be used to construct and repair fishing boats and will be open to the public as part of the nearby Apalachicola Maritime Museum.

Both projects, if they receive funding, will help the Franklin County seafood industry in the future, said Linda Raffield of Apalachicola, the wife of an oysterman. She also is secretary of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.

Although the seafood industry has declined because of foreign products, fuel prices and lack of pay increases for seafood workers, she said the boat-building workshop will provide jobs. The boat ramp will ensure that oystermen have a place to unload their boats.

"When it comes to waterfront landings, that helps," she said. "It may not seem to help this week, but there will be good times to come."

Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham said working waterfronts have played an important role in shaping the state's culture and economy.

"I applaud these communities for demonstrating a commitment to protect these special places and promote the legacy that working waterfronts have made upon Florida's maritime history and culture," Pelham said in a written statement.

In Pinellas County, the Southeastern Fisheries Association has applied for two grants totaling $2.6 million. One would help protect a Madeira Beach grouper processing house, now on leased property, from being developed into condominiums, said Bob Jones, the association's executive director.

Even though coastal development may be in a slump along with the rest of the real estate industry, Jones said the development pressure will return. He said the program will help protect the jobs and the seafood industry.

"We really have to have shore-side facilities if we are going to have domestic fish -- it's just that simple," Jones said. "You've got to unload somewhere."

The working waterfronts program is named after Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who died Sept. 30 from cancer. As chairman of the House Environment and Natural Resources Council, he pushed earlier this year for reauthorization of the Florida Forever program that provides $300 million annually for land purchases, including the working waterfronts program.

The projects are scheduled to be ranked in January by the Florida Communities Trust board. Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet are scheduled to consider approving the list in February.

Contact journalist Bruce Ritchie at bruceritchie@embarqmail.com or at 850-385-1774.
Photos and text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and www.bruceritchie.com .

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Former Gannett environmental reporter becomes "independent" by noon

I started out this morning as a reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. I ended the work day as an "independent journalist."

At 8:45 I headed over to Marpan Recycling to work on a story about the state's goal of achieving 75 percent recycling by 2020. That was the goal spelled out earlier this year in a comprehensive state energy bill. And the goal is about three times as much as the state is recycling now.

At Marpan, they're recycling about two-thirds of the construction waste that comes in. Concrete, metal, cardboard and wood are the main products that are sold to recyclers along with mulch.

Marpan's Kim Williams said the state could boost recycling if people purchased more products from recycled materials to boost markets. Starting in January, all construction waste now going to Leon County's landfill will go through Marpan first for recycling.

Upon heading into the office shortly after 10, I was called into the office of Executive Editor Bob Gabordi. I knew what was coming, especially when I saw Managing Editor Africa Price there.

I was being laid off, Bob explained, and he asked if I had any questions. I could have responded more politely but frankly I was annoyed. My job had already been changed three times this year, and now I was being put out of work. But we shook hands, they offered to help me and I offered to help them in the future. There was a modest severance package.

Then I went home. I checked my e-mails. I returned a few phone calls. And I didn't know what to do next.

So I ate my lunch and went to work.

I went to the same state hearing that I had been planning on going to. But now I wasn't a Tallahassee Democrat reporter.

It was interesting to hear Ron Henricks of DEP explain that the state could reach about 50 percent recycling just by changing the way the process is counted. We could add 10 percent in construction waste that's not now counted, throw in another 11 percent for "waste-to-energy" which is burning to produce electricity, and perhaps another 4 percent by counting the use of landfill gas.

About 100 people attended, many of them from county recycling programs. Speakers chimed in with ideas about how the state could better educate residents to recycle or how it needs to create new markets for recyclable materials.

It seemed like news to me, but I was the only reporter there to cover it. And I wasn't even a newspaper reporter any more. Perhaps the other media were at the Environmental Regulation Commission meeting across town, where an important vote was scheduled on whether to adopt California's auto emissions standards. Or maybe they were not there either.

Earlier this year I would have covered the ERC instead. But my environmental reporting job got axed on Aug. 1 and I was reassigned to cover Leon County. Since recycling is inherently local, I figured I could at least cover the interesting concept of recycling 75 percent of our waste.

In this age of change, I feel certain there is a place for me to report on the important issues in Florida's Capital. Maybe I'll become a blogger, combined with some freelancing, combined with being on welfare. The reality hasn't really set in yet.

All I know is that today ended a lot differently than it started -- at least for me. And I think I'm OK with that.