Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rural waste money hit; Growth-bill stripped

Senators and representatives from rural counties pleaded to a legislative conference committee for more money for a DEP solid waste program that provides money for waste programs in rural counties. The program provides for rural counties to collect garbage and to operate landfills, waste collection sites and recycling programs. The Senate and House have tentatively agreed to provide $2.5 million for the program, but some conference committee members said the rural counties need more. "You're going to see any meaningful recycling programs go away," said Chris Doolin, a consultant to 35 rural counties. "You are going to see Hefty bags in the back of pickup trucks getting tossed on the side of the road. You are going to see tires go into places that are very unsightly. That will be the net outcome of closed (garbage) collection sites." The money comes from a disposal fee for new tires, and Sen. Carey Baker, chairman of the Senate Committee on General Government Appropriations, said less tax revenue is being collected because of the sagging economy.

The Senate today stripped a growth management bill of House amendments that the Florida Department of Community Affairs had objected to. SB 360 was approved Wednesday by the House after a divided vote along party lines. The bill would ease restrictions on developments in urban areas with congested roads. DCA supported the bill until it was amended in the House this week. Secretary Tom Pelham said the bill would encourage urban sprawl and unchecked development in rural areas. His opposition prompted Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola and House Economic and Community Affairs Policy Council chair, to say on Wednesday that he'd like to see Pelham find a job in the private sector. The House passed the amended bill by a 76-41 vote. In the Senate today, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Bennett, proposed a series of amendments that he said made the bill acceptable to Pelham, which a DCA spokesman confirmed. The bill, approved 28-12, now goes back to the House.

End of leaking tanks cleanup could threaten water

Florida's cleanup program for protecting groundwater from leaking underground tanks at gas stations will effectively end under a budget agreement between House and Senate leaders, Sen. Carey Baker said today.

Florida collects an 80 cents-per-barrel tax on petroleum imported into the state to help pay for cleaning up soil and groundwater that poses a threat to drinking water supplies. There were 17,783 cleanup sites in 2008, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

More than $100 million a year has been collected for the program since 2000. But legislative leaders on Thursday proposed reducing the program in fiscal 2009-10 to $10 million, which House and Senate members said would deal a serious blow to the program.

"This is going to have a detrimental effect to the state," said Baker, R-Eustis and a budget conference committee chairman. "We will not be able to do cleanup this year like we have in the past."

Asked by a House member whether eliminating the program will significantly impact drinking water quality, DEP representative Jennifer Fitzwater said, "Yes, I think that is a fair statement."

House and Senate leaders have been trying to address a $6 billion revenue shortfall in the proposed 2008-09 budget. Baker said the decision to take money from the Inland Protection Trust Fund was made by the House and Senate leaders and their budget chairmen.

The more than $130 million swept from the trust fund won't be spent in 2009-10, Baker said. Instead, he said the money will be transferred to a "rainy day" fund to be used for general government only if needed.

Baker and industry groups said the move could cause petroleum clean-up firms to go out of business and they won't be available if the program resumes when the economy gets better.

"It could be the worst environmental policy decision made in the last 20 years from my clients' perspective," said Phil Leary, a representative of the Florida Groundwater Association, which includes firms that drill monitoring wells at contamination sites.

Small service station owners who are required to replace their gasoline tanks by the end of the year with double-walled tanks to prevent future leaks are unable to borrow money from banks because the program is in jeopardy, said Jim Smith, president of the Florida Petroleum Marketers & Convenience Store Association.

Of the 17,783 cleanup sites, 3,957 were undergoing cleanup last year and another 8,209 were awaiting cleanup, according to DEP. Keeping $10 million in the program would allow for only an emergency clean-up if one is needed, Baker said.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, said the state could have borrowed $200 million to pay for the program next year. But he said that would have cost the state more than $150 million in interest and put the state's bond rating at risk, increasing the state's cost to borrow money in the future.

"If we bond it for another year all we're doing is adding to the already existing problem," said Poppell, R-Vero Beach.

"We hear you," he told senators and representatives. "We are with you. We understand this is painful."

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Please do not redistribute without permission.

Senate approves renewables bill, sends to House

The Senate voted 37-1 today to approve SB 1154, which requires investor-owned utilities produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from "clean" energy sources including nuclear.

The bill, supported by Gov. Charlie Crist to address climate change, was a top priority of environmental groups but faces an uncertain future in the House where a companion bill was not heard in committee.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim King, said there is a good possibility the Legislature will adopt an energy bill if the Senate shows overwhelming support to convince some "doubting Thomases" in the House about the need for the bill.

"I would hope, really hope, even if you have some second thoughts or whatever that you would send this on its way to see what we get back," said King, R-Jacksonville. "Hopefully Florida will take a giant, giant step to being less dependent on foreign fuel."

The bill requires at least 15 percent of electricity be from renewable sources including solar, wind and biomass plants. Crist and the Florida Public Service Commission had asked that 20 percent be from renewable sources, but King said that was scaled back to 15 percent to include nuclear to win support from utilities.

During debate, Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said he was supporting the bill "as a very big step in the right direction." But he also said Florida is "retreating somewhat" by reducing the renewable energy requirement and allowing nuclear to be included in the 20 percent requirement.

"If we didn't vote for this bill, we'd have absolutely no goal at this point," Gelber said.

The bill was amended Wednesday to allow utilities to charge customers in advance for the cost of renewable energy projects.

King said the bill would allow Florida to reduce its dependance on foreign fuel, which was a major argument from the House on Monday when it adopted HB 1219 to lift the ban on drilling for oil and gas in Florida waters. Senate President Jeff Atwater said his chamber would not take up the bill.

Crist said earlier in the week that some drilling supporters sought to link drilling with the renewable energy bill. So environmentalists now will be watching to see whether the House adds drilling to the bill or adopts it without major changes.

Environmental groups supported SB 1154 but did not support changing the renewable energy standard to allow nuclear.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Springs, Everglades measures fail as amendments

Sen. Lee Constantine's effort to get his springs bill attached to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection bill (SB 2104) failed today by a 19-13 vote. SB 274 by Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, would regulate nitrogen releases to groundwater from farms, sewage treatment plants and septic tanks. Scientists say increasing nitrogen in groundwater fuels the growth of weeds and algae in springs across the state. Developers and home-builders have challenged the cost to septic tank owners, though Constantine said septic tanks can be upgraded for less than has been estimated. "You have a DEP package here that has a lot of good stuff in it," Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said in speaking against the amendment. "This bill or this amendment really should stand on its own two feet because there is a significant amount of policy change in this amendment."

An amendment to the same DEP bill to block the state's purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in the Everglades also failed, this time by a 21-16 vote. The South Florida Water Management District is considering a revised deal to purchase 72,500 acres for $533 million. The deal, like an earlier more expensive proposal, faces opposition from some legislators and local officials in Hendry County who say it's too expensive and will cost jobs. The amendment by Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, would attempt to block water management districts from using such a "certificate of participation" for issuing bonds without approval from the Legislature. "We need to protect the taxpayers of the state of Florida," Dockery said. Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, responded that the proposed purchase is "one of the most important initiatives historically we will ever see in our lifetime."

Florida will receive $250 million from the federal stimulus package for civil works projects in Florida including $96 million for Everglades restoration, state officials said today. Florida DEP Secretary Mike Sole and South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Carol Wehle said the stimulus money would provide economic and environmental benefits for the South Florida ecosystem. "This funding will be instrumental in putting people to work by improving Florida’s infrastructure for flood protection and navigation, as well as protecting and restoring Florida’s vast natural resources," they said in a jointly-issued statement. "We especially appreciate the Administration’s attention and efforts to move Everglades Restoration forward with this critical funding."

Wishful thinking? Florida Forever still alive, supporters say

Supporters of the Florida Forever land-buying program say reports that the program is dead in fiscal year 2009-10 are premature.

The state has purchased 2.4 million acres since 1990 under Florida Forever and a predecessor program, making it the largest conservation land-buying program in the nation and a top priority for environmental groups each year.

Gov. Charlie Crist requested $300 million for the program again in next year's budget. The Senate proposed $50 million for Florida Forever and another $50 million for Everglades restoration but the House stripped both amounts from SB 2430, dealing with documentary stamp tax collections.

House Speaker Larry Cretul said Tuesday the program is dead and won't be discussed in budget conference committees.

"It's hard to go back home and tell folks that you're out spending upwards of $100 million buying land and taking it off the tax rolls and not being able to find the money for the other things," Cretul said, according to The News Service of Florida.

But the Florida Forever Coalition today sent an alert to its members stating that Florida Forever remains alive and rejecting news media interpretations (See alert here).

"This bill must be negotiated by the two houses (in a Senate-House budget conference) -- and, with the correct outcome, Florida Forever funding will be realized," the coalition said.

Daggers fly at DCA's Pelham during growth bill debate

The House today adopted a growth-management bill after heated debate during which a Republican leader suggested he'd like Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham to leave state government.

The remark by Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, followed a statement issued by Pelham yesterday against SB 360.

DCA supported the bill as approved by the Senate, Pelham said, because it would lift restrictions against development in urban areas with roads that are over capacity. Supporters say such "urban infill" is needed as an antidote to sprawl.

But on Tuesday, Pelham issued a statement saying that SB 360, as amended by the House, and SB 362, another growth-management bill, "do not constitute good public policy and will seriously undermine Florida's growth management laws." He said the bills would allow "unchecked development" in rural areas and eliminate DCA review in major portions of the state.

During the debate today on SB 360, Rep. Davie Murzin, R-Pensacola, said the House Economic Development and Community Affairs Policy Council that he chairs had been working on its version of the bill for a long time. Neither he nor the other House members who spoke in support of the bill disputed Pelham's analysis.

"I'm not hiding the fact I'd love to see Secretary Pelham find a job in the private sector, OK?" Murzin said.

Murzin said that DCA had not been the partner that the House needed to write the bill. "To put out a press release without showing your face in the House Office Building for weeks is wrong," he said.

But Pelham said Murzin's council never invited the department to help write the bill. Instead, Pelham said, the council rejected his testimony when he appeared before it and also proposed a bill that would dismantle DCA.

Pelham said he would not respond to Murzin's suggestion that he find a private-sector job. "I would rather not respond to personal attacks," the DCA secretary said.

Gov. Charlie Crist said he supports Pelham, but the governor may not have been aware at the time of the accusations made on the House floor. Pelham said he had not spoken with the governor about the SB 360 debate.

Pelham has won praise from environmentalists for DCA's objections to some controversial projects while industry groups have been calling on the state to roll back growth-management regulations to boost the sagging economy. Pelham says growth-management has not caused the nation's economic problems.

Before being picked in 2007 by Crist to lead DCA, Pelham was an environmental law attorney and was president of the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association. In 2001, he received an outstanding public service award in environmental and land use law from the Florida Bar Association.

Pelham also served as DCA secretary under Gov. Bob Martinez from 1987 to 1991, which was pointed out by Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, in debate against SB 360.

"When we have an opinion from someone we should respect, we should listen to that opinion," Saunders said, calling for a nonpartisan vote against the bill.

Rep. Chris Dorworth, who earlier in the session argued for a House committee bill that would eliminate DCA, joined Murzin in criticizing the department for issuing the statement the day before.

"At whatever point you decide for now on you are going to defer entirely to what the secretary of an agency says, I suggest you forfeit your membership in this body," said Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, before being applauded by some Republican House members.

The 76-41 vote was split largely along party lines.

To see how individual representatives voted, click here.

Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Florida

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cabinet approves rural lands list; Florida Forever in doubt

The governor and Cabinet today approved its first priority purchase list for more than 54,000 acres of ranches and farmland under a program that's designed to keep the property in private ownership while protecting it from development.

The Rural and Family Lands Protection Act of 2001 established the program to purchase "conservation easements" that would prevent development of rural lands. But the program didn't receive any money until the 2008 Legislature designated $10.5 million for rural lands purchases.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet today voted unanimously to accept the first proposed list of 37 properties. But funding for the Florida Forever program that provided the $10.5 million this year remains in doubt in fiscal year 2009-10.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, a critic of state conservation purchases that take land off the tax rolls, said the Rural and Family Lands program represents the kind of land preservation that's needed in Florida.

There is more than 9 million acres of state and federal lands in Florida that are not taxed because they're owned by government, Bronson said, hurting small rural counties that have a smaller tax base. But the Rural and Family Lands purchases, he said, will remain on the tax rolls as private working farms and ranches.

"These are the kinds of programs that make sense," Bronson said. "I hope we can get more support from the Legislature for it and from the Cabinet."

With 9,778 acres in three proposed purchases, Okeechobee County has the largest number of acres on the list of any county. The figure doesn't include a portion of one project, Walpole Ranch, that is split among Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Martin counties.

Okeechobee County's Williamson Cattle Ranch, with 8,790 acres, is the largest of the 37 proposed purchases. Conservation of the cattle and citrus operation will protect water quality draining into Lake Okeechobee and the North For St. Lucie River Aquatic Preserve, according to state agencies.

Eight of the proposed purchases are less than 200 acres in size. Three of the 37 involve organic farming, including the Hastings Farm/Smith Family Farm in St. Johns County.

Purchase of a conservation easement there will help maintain community-supported agriculture, said Patrick Hamilton, a real estate broker who represents the Smith Family Farm. He said the farm has been family-owned for five generations.

"What they are doing is bending according to the demands of the public to stay a family farm," Hamilton said. "They are doing whatever it takes to stay a farm."

Bronson said he'd like for the Rural and Family Lands program to take priority for state conservation lands money.

But the Florida Forever program, which along with a predecessor program received $300 million a year since 1990, could go without funding in 2009-10. The land-buying program is the largest in the nation, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Senate has proposed $50 million for Florida Forever plus another $50 million for Everglades Restoration. But the House today voted to strip both amounts from SB 2430, which deals with documentary stamp tax revenue.

"We remain optimistic but realistic about the compromise funding that the senate has proposed," said Andy McLeod, director of governmental affairs for The Nature Conservancy's Florida Chapter. "And we're working overtime to make the case that that is the only means to fund Florida Forever next year."

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Please do not redistribute without permission.

Crist says Senate's not hearing drilling bill 'appropriate'

Gov. Charlie Crist said this morning that it's "appropriate" that the Senate apparently won't hear before the legislative session ends a House bill that would lift the ban on drilling for oil and gas within three miles of the coast.

"While I believe that it's worthwhile studying and looking into for energy independence for our state and our country, the lateness of the hour as it relates to the session as well as the closeness to our shore concern me," Crist told reporters after a Cabinet meeting in the Capitol.

HB 1219 would establish a process for the governor and Cabinet to grant oil drilling leases within state waters between three and 10 miles of the coastline. Supporters said drilling could be done without harming the environment but opponents said the bill puts the state's tourism economy and seafood industry at risk.

The bill, which was approved Monday by the House on a 70-43 vote, was amended in its final committee stop last week to allow drilling. Previously the bill only called on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to recommend a plan for drilling while protecting the coast. The proposal was not heard by Senate committees.

The session was scheduled to end on Friday. But Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul announced today they would extend the session through May 8 only to deal with budget issues, according to the News Service of Florida.

Atwater told reporters Monday night that there wasn't time to hear the drilling bill in the Senate before the session. And he said he couldn't imagine there would be time in a special session to take it up.

"That is a really significant, significantly important issue and one that frankly at our end would take some serious review and really understand how far the science has come," Atwater said. "And we haven't had any covering of that matter to date."

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the issue isn't going away. He said he still hopes the bill can be heard by the Legislature before the session ends.

"It takes all three of them to tango -- the governor, the Senate and the House," Mica said.

See Alex Leary's video of Atwater's comments.

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Please do not redistribute without permission.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Drilling bill wins final House approval

In a vote described by both sides in historic terms, the House today approved a bill that would allow oil drilling in state waters as close as three miles to the coastline.

Supporters said the bill was needed to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. But opponents said drilling would put the state's beach tourism economy and commercial and recreational fishing at risk.

The 70-43 vote came after Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and the designated House Speaker in 2010, said the bill would only begin the conversation on whether to allow drilling rather than granting any approvals.

"A vote 'No' on this bill is to say I don't want to have the conversation. I want to say no before I know the question. I don't want to give the authority to the same people that our constitution and statutes give the authority to make those kinds of judgment calls and if they chose to examine it and say no, and that's fine,' " Cannon said.

The vote capped a dizzying week in which the proposal was amended to HB 1219 on its last committee stop last Tuesday. Previously the bill called on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to study the process for allowing drilling while protecting Florida's coastal environment.

Gov. Charlie Crist said Friday he heard that House approval of his bill to require more renewable energy from utilities may be linked to the drilling bill. Rep. Adam Hasner, the House majority leader, said he wasn't aware of any such linkage.

This afternoon, Crist again said he would prefer that the issues be considered separately.

"I think each of these bills can stand on their own merit," Crist told reporters. "That would be my preference and my direction."

During the House debate Democrats generally lined up against the bill by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, while Republicans backed it. Both sides describe the vote in historic terms.

Supporters said the bill would protect the environment by putting the governor and Cabinet in charge of deciding whether to issue oil and gas leases in Florida waters between three and 10 miles from the coastline.

They also said drilling would bring 16,000 new jobs, and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and regimes that are hostile towards the U.S.

"A vote for this bill is a vote for America, a vote for our way of life," said Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker. "And a vote against this bill is a vote for OPEC and to live under their guidance."

But opponents repeatedly noted that Van Zant's estimates of the economic benefits of drilling came from the oil industry itself. Democrats said a single oil spill would put some of the world's best beaches at risk and threaten the state's ocean economy, estimated in 2003 at $13.1 billion.

"If we gamble what we have that makes our economy work, we could see our economy crumble," said Rep. Richard L. Steinberg, D-Miami Beach.

After the vote, supporters and opponents outside of the House chamber said they are not sure of the fate of the bill in the Senate, where there wasn't a committee hearing on the drilling proposal.

"This is the Legislature increasingly looking like it's owned by the Texas oil companies and not accountable to its constituents," said Eric Draper, policy director of Audubon of Florida.

Opponents, he said, "will do the best we can to persuade 20 senators" to vote against it.

David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council rejected the characterization by opponents that "big oil" controlled the vote.

"There was not one Texan who pushed one (voting) button today," Mica said.

He said he was optimistic about the bill in the Senate before the scheduled May 1 end of the legislative session. But added, "With the clock running, you don't want to disclose your vote counts."

Photo by Mark Foley, Florida House of Representatives.
Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Environmental bills uncertain in last week of session

By Bruce Ritchie
Some environmentalists say their low expectations for the legislative session have been met.

Heading into the final week of the session that began March 3, the prospects range from uncertain to bleak for Gov. Charlie Crist's energy bills, conservation land-buying and for a Senate measure aimed at protecting Florida's springs. But some environmentalists expected worse.

"Given where we thought we were going to be with this session, we are in a way better off than we thought we were going to be," said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.

But Wade Hopping, a veteran industry lobbyist, said environmental issues have just gotten lost in a year when so much attention has been focused on the state's $6 billion budget deficit and a slowing economy.

In the House, a proposal to lift the ban on drilling for oil in Florida waters caught environmental groups off-guard. The measure was moving swiftly after first being proposed last week and it could be used as a chip against the governor's energy proposals.

The Senate and House have drifted far apart on environmental issues with the House having refused to take up Crist's proposals to produce more electricity from renewable energy and to require more fuel-efficient cars.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation, suggested a stark contrast exists between the House and the Senate on environmental legislation.

"I'm seeing only bad environmental bills from the House." Constantine said.

"I don't see any good environmental bills," Constantine said. "I don't see anything that matches up to our's. Their environmental committees are sending over anti-environmental bills."

Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach and House majority leader, responded that there are "different approaches" to dealing with the environment and that he didn't want to get into a spat with the senator. Hasner said drilling for oil would reduce dependence on foreign oil and would be done in an environmentally-friendly way.

"Some of the other legislation you are referring to is legislation that members of committees either chose not to hear or didn't think was something that was part of a discussion this year," Hasner said.

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a Sarasota Democrat, said the House leadership lost time after Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, stepped down as House speaker just prior to the start of the session.

"What we are seeing is not restricted to one aspect of policy," Fitzgerald said. "It's everywhere."

"It's just a matter of fact that things are not moving as smoothly as they usually do," he said.

Hasner called the remarks "a cheap attack" and baseless even though Fitzgerald said he wasn't trying to take a shot at House Speaker Larry Cretul.

Hopping, who represents the Association of Florida Community Developers along with automobile manufacturers who opposed Crist's "clean cars" bill, said House members, because their districts are smaller, are more sensitive to the economic downturn.

Other environmental initiatives, he said, got lost in the year when the economy and budget have dominated.

"It's hard to focus on things that are important when you have crises," Hopping said. "This other stuff pales in importance."

Asked on Wednesday after an Earth Day celebration at the Capitol whether the House was bucking his environmental agenda, Crist said, "Let's find out May 1 (the last day of the legislative session)."

But on Friday, the governor said that HB 1219, the oil drilling bill, was being linked by some in the Legislature to passage of his renewable energy bill. That suggests the governor may not get his renewable energy bill pass unless he goes along with the drilling bill, which he said he has concerns about.

Constantine has attached his springs bill, SB 274, to a regulatory reform bill in the Senate that was supported by the home-builders and developers who opposed his springs bill. There is no House companion bill to SB 274.

Hopping said the springs bill riled many groups because it was so far-reaching.

"I think that has its own self-inflicted wounds," he said.

The Florida Forever and its predecessor land-buying program has received $300 million a year since 1990, leading to the purchase of 2.4 million acres. After both the House and Senate initially refused to provide money for the program because of the state's $6 billion budget deficit, the Senate now is proposing $50 million both for Florida Forever and another $40 million Everglades restoration.

"Getting away with some money for Florida Forever and the Everglades -- which seems increasingly likely -- that is a bright spot," said Draper, the Audubon lobbyist.

One environmental bill that is moving in the House would extend development permits by three years. Environmental groups had opposed the regulatory reform bill but are OK with it now that restrictions against city and county environmental regulations have been removed, Draper said.

Legislators missed opportunities and passed on ideas to provide more temporary permitting relief for businesses that deal with permitting and regulations, Hopping said.

"There were a lot of ideas that were thrown out there that were very smart," Hopping said.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Quote of the week: God will make more oil

"Some people would like to think that (the world's petroleum supply is limited). Estimates might show that. But that doesn't mean that at all. We happen to worship a god who made it all out of nothing anyway. And if we ran out, I certainly believe he could make some more."

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, during questioning on the House Floor Friday on HB 1219, which would allow oil and gas production as close as three miles to the Florida coast.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Oil drilling bill wins preliminary House approval

The Florida House today gave preliminary approval to a bill that would lift the ban on oil and gas production within three miles of the coast.

Earlier today, Gov. Charlie Crist and CFO Alex Sink, a Democrat, criticized the proposal as coming late in the legislative session.

HB 1219 would require the governor and Cabinet to approve nominations and solicit bids for leases between three and 10.5 miles from the shoreline, according to Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, and sponsor of the bill. He said oil and gas production in Florida would produce 16,000 jobs.

The bill previously only called on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to draft a plan for allowing oil production while protecting the environment. The House Policy Council on Tuesday voted 17-7 to amend the bill to allow drilling -- with nine days left in the legislative session that began March 3.

"That part concerns me," Crist said after a tree-planting ceremony outside the Capitol to mark Arbor Day. "Whenever you do something like that, you want to make sure it is well thought out, that it is done in a very deliberate manner and that people have an opportunity to review it in a reasonable way."

"And the closeness of it concerns me too," he added, in an apparent reference to the bill allowing drilling to occur within three miles of shore.

State CFO Alex Sink said oil drilling and production are threats to fishing, tourism and marina-related industries.

“I also think it is unconscionable that a bill that could threaten our economy is being passed at the 11th hour, without any significant debate, serious study or real time to hear from Florida’s citizens," Sink said in a written statement.  "Floridians deserve to have government in the sunshine -- this bill is government in the dark of night.”

The bill was passed on second reading without a vote. Debate and a final vote will occur on third reading, which has not been scheduled.

During more than an hour of questions about the bill on the House floor, Van Zant said he had seen the amendment for the first time on Monday night when it was sent to him from the Legislature's bill-drafting office. The amendment was offered by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and House Speaker-designate in 2010.

"I think it's a good amendment," Van Zant said. "It gets us where we need to go."

In response to questions mostly from Democratic House members, Van Zant also said oil and gas production rigs would not be visible above the water's surface nor would they interfere with military aircraft training missions over the Gulf of Mexico. Wells would be dug by ships which would leave, he said, and oil would be produced and pumped to facilities onshore by underwater pumps.

He said failures of oil rigs during hurricanes Katrina and Rita had produced minimal spills that were contained by oil companies.

"I believe the free enterprise system itself will dictate they (oil companies) give us the safest production measures in the world," Van Zant said.

Associated Industries of Florida has launched an advertising and public relations campaign in support of the HB 1219, purchasing full-page newspaper advertisements and commercials on television stations.

"In the worst economy of our lifetime -- a bold plan to meet our energy needs, grow our economy and protect our environment," the advertisement states. It refers readers to the Web site

HB 1219 requires a $1 million payment to submit a bid to purchase oil and gas leases. The governor and Cabinet would be required to accept nominations for lease areas by Sept. 1 of each year.

Royalties from oil and gas leases would provide $300 million a year for the Florida Forever conservation land-buying program. The bill also requires that $20 million be provided for beach restoration projects and another $20 million for local governments within the counties where leases are issued.

The Florida Forever Coalition on Thursday said oil and gas drilling "is not an appropriate, reliable solution to Florida Forever funding."

Crist, whose bills to require more renewable energy and fuel-efficient cars are stalled in the Legislature, said there had been attempts by the Legislature to link adoption of his energy bills with lifting the ban on oil drilling.

Such linkage is "kind of an ironic marriage, if you will," Crist said. "I think we still have a chance to do what's right."

Photo of Rep. Van Zant during debate courtesy of the Florida House.

Story and Crist photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Environmental, farming groups concerned about tax breaks

A House committee on Wednesday passed a bill that would exempt conservation lands from being taxed as approved by voters last November. But farming and environmental groups remained concerned that the measure would restrict landowners from receiving the tax breaks.

Amendment 4, approved by 68 percent of voters in November, exempts land from property taxes that is subject to a permanent "conservation easement." That's an arrangement where a family or corporation could continue to own land but would agree not to develop it in exchange for the tax breaks.

The exemption would take effect Jan. 1, 2010 under the proposed committee bill approved by the House Finance and Tax Council on Wednesday.

House members concerned about the financial impact on counties had sought to limit the conservation lands that could receive exemptions.

The House council bill (PCB FTC 09-02) provides the exemption for tracts of land 40 acres or larger that are used exclusively for conservation purposes. Conservation lands that still are used for some commercial purposes would receive a 50 percent exemption.

The House council approved the measure after adopting an amendment by Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, that would have the state pay 15 counties with populations under 25,000 for county tax revenue lost because of the tax break.

House members said the potential fiscal impact of the amendment isn't known, yet the constitutional amendment must be implemented because it was approved by voters.

"We tried to put in some safeguards but recognize we could devastate some of these smaller communities with very little population," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and chairwoman of the council.

Representatives of Audubon of Florida and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation said their concerns had not been resolved about the House bill restrictions on applying the tax exemptions.

Conservation landowners still must conduct some commercial activities, such as leasing land for hunting or limited farming or timber harvesting, to pay for maintaining their lands, said Ben Parks, director of state legislative affairs for Farm Bureau.

"We read it ... when this constitutional amendment passed it was 100 percent (tax exemption)," Parks said. "It did not say 50 percent."

"The private landowner, they give up a huge benefit of development (under a conservation easement). That is a huge thing," Parks said.

Bogdanoff said the committee needed to approve the bill to send it to the full House for a vote. She said she would continue to work with other committee members and groups to improve the bill before the session ends on May 1.

"Amazing things can happen in a week and a half," she said.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Earth Day, Crist says he's open-minded to drilling

Celebrating Earth Day outside the Capitol on Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist said he is open minded to HB 1219, which would allow oil drilling off the Florida coast.

"I think the more diversified we can be when it comes to the energy resources that we have the stronger that makes Florida and America," Crist said. "The experience last summer tells you when gas goes above $4 (a gallon), people want options. They want solar, wind, nuclear -- any option we can exercise responsibly and safely."

To address climate change, Crist has proposed requiring utilities to produce more electricity from renewable energy and establishing automobile standards to reduce pollution and improve fuel-efficiency. Yet the House has not acted on either proposal.

Asked whether he thought the House was trying to buck his environmental agenda, Crist said, "Let's find out May 1 (the last day of the legislative session)."

"I'm more encouraged this week," he continued. "I had good conversations with Rep. Baxter Troutman on some biomass issues. I think that's going to get some things moving forward."

Outside the Capitol, hundreds of schoolchildren received "Serve to Preserve" patches from the governor and Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole while state agencies set up booths to promote their environmental programs.

"We have taken this issue of climate change and depoliticized it, I think," Crist told the crowd. "You see a bipartisan group of legislators with us today and a nonpartisan group of children with us today. And it is because of their heart and because of their leadership in the House and the Senate and the children throughout the state of Florida -- they get it.

They understand how important it is to protect we protect this beautiful state we call Florida," he said. "There is no place prettier."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oil drilling, renewable energy bills advance

A bill that would require renewable energy use by utilities advanced in the Florida Senate today while the House amended a bill to encourage oil drilling off the state's coastline.

SB 1154 would require 20 percent of energy by 2020 to come from "clean energy" sources including nuclear and solar. The bill, introduced by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, was approved by the Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means but its House companion hasn't been heard in committee -- placing its future in doubt.

In the House, a committee substitute introduced by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, for HB 1219 would create a process for the governor and Cabinet to approve future oil and gas drilling leases. Environmental groups that oppose drilling said they were caught off-guard by the proposal.

The bill, as approved today by the House Policy Council, also would provide royalties from drilling to pay for the state's Florida Forever conservation land-buying program, which the House has not funded in its proposed 2009-10 state budget. The measure, environmental groups said, may be an attempt to force them to choose between drilling and land conservation.

The oil industry "is spending big bucks to get this passed," said Susan Glickman, representing the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"It's a complete shift in policy in Florida related to offshore drilling and exploration," she said. "We knew about it at 11 o'clock last night. They obviously had this prepared in advance."

But David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said several oil drilling bills including HB 1219 had been debated in committee and were moving through the process. He credited Cannon, the designated House Speaker in 2010, for his leadership on the issue.

Gov. Charlie Crist reopened the drilling debate last summer while supporting Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who supported drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. While Florida officials had been lockstep in opposition to drilling, Crist said it should be allowed if it was far enough from the shoreline and safe enough to protect Florida's coast.

Mica said the amended bill may be more restrictive than the original version, which required DEP to recommend a plan to allow for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico while also protecting the environment.

"It's that necessary part of the future energy equation that I think involves renewables, alternatives, conservation, efficiency -- and oil and gas," Mica said. Cannon was not immediately available for comment.

A DEP spokesman said the department is reviewing the bill to determine what impact it might have.

In the Senate, Crist's revised proposal to create a renewable energy requirement for utilities continued to advance even as its future in the House remained uncertain.

Crist in 2007 asked the Public Service Commission to adopt a requirement for 20 percent renewable energy -- not including nuclear -- by 2020 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An energy bill adopted last year required the Legislature to approve the requirement

HB 1319, the companion to SB 1154, hasn't been heard in committee. Crist said he has urged the House to take action but Speaker Larry Cretul said his chamber would wait for the Senate to act.

That prompted Sen. JD Alexander, R-Winter Haven and committee chairman, to remark during a busy committee hearing, "I've got lots to do on this agenda and this bill's got nowhere to go."

Environmental groups support the bill but oppose including nuclear into a new "clean energy" definition that required only 15 percent from renewable sources, such as solar, biomass and wind energy.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Senator proposes slew of springs bill amendments

A bill that would the regulate nitrogen releases from farms, septic tanks and sewage treatment plants to protect springs was passed over by a Senate committee Monday after more than a dozen amendments were proposed by a senator who says he has more springs in his district than any other in the state.

Sen. Charlie Dean, a Republican from Inverness whose district includes the Suwannee River and its numerous springs, said he was unhappy with SB 274 as written because he said it provides a "one-shoe-fits-all" solution to springs problems.

"I just don't think overall the springs bill as it is today right now is an effective vehicle for what we need for the state of Florida," said Dean, R-Inverness. "It's too broad, one-shoe-fits-all. The springs are too important."

SB 274 would establish springs "protection zones" in counties with larger springs and could require advanced septic tanks and sewage treatment and the regulation of fertilizer and manure on farms. The bill wasn't heard by the Senate General Government Appropriations Committee because of limited time and the amount of proposed amendments, said Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis and committee chairman.

Some springs across North and Central Florida have become choked with weeds and algae as nitrogen in groundwater has increased. Scientists say wastewater discharges, septic tanks, fertilizer, dirty stormwater runoff and livestock farms are among the sources of nitrogen.

The bill has support from environmental groups but faces opposition from the Association of Florida Community Developers and concerns from home-builders and agriculture groups. Dean said he would prefer a voluntary approach similar to the Suwannee River Partnership to provide financial assistance to farmers for actions to protect groundwater.

Environmentalists said the amendments proposed by Dean would strip the bill of its teeth and relegate the springs to continued studies. Bills in recent years that called for studies or pilot programs to reduce springs pollution also failed in the Legislature.

"The problem has been studied enough," said Janet Bowman, director of legislative policy and strategies for The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter.

The bulk of SB 274 already has been tacked onto SB 2026, a bill supported by home-builders that would extend the life of permits for new construction. SB 2026 has two more committee stops before it reaches the Senate floor.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Crist speaks out for new environmental license plate

Gov. Charlie Crist today dropped in on a Senate committee hearing to voice support for a new Florida specialty license plate.

The "Catch Me, Release Me" plate features a design by artist Guy Harvey showing a blue marlin bursting out of the water against a yellow backdrop. The $25 tag fee would be distributed to the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Inc. for scientific research related to marine issues and conservation and education initiatives.

Crist, a saltwater boater and fisherman, sat with members of the Senate General Government Appropriations Committee while he spoke on behalf of the license plate bill, SB 650 by Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah.

"What I think what Mr. Harvey is trying to get at," Crist said, "is to be a conservationist and protect our sea life and do it in a way that pleases the eye on the back of one of our vehicles."

If approved by the Legislature, the new license plate would become the twenty-first environmental tag. Five of the top ten license plates are environmental, with the "Protect Wild Dolphins" tag last year bumping "Protect the Panther" out of the No. 2 spot behind the University of Florida.

The "Endless Summer" license plate, which promotes surfing and supports organizations concerned about coastal pollution and beach ecology, was approved by the committee last week. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, introduced SB 860 to create the tag.

An index of all speciality license plates is available at the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles web site.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Learning her son has cancer, author prays for our role on planet

Nature writer Susan Cerulean says she has done everything she could to raise a child in the outdoors. And having recently learned that her 20-year-old son has cancer, she sees his condition as a microcosm of the perils facing Florida.

Cerulean was honored for her writings this week by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. She is an author of books including the "Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide" and "Tracking Desire: A Journey After Swallowed-tail Kites" and an editor of "Between Two Rivers" and "The Wild Heart of Florida."

But Cerulean, who also has edited and written reports for the commission including its "Wildlife 2060" report, said she wasn't sure if she would make it to the commission meeting to accept her honors.

"I found out two weeks ago my son has a form of lymphoma," she said. "I have done absolutely everything a person can do to raise a child outside. I've made my career on behalf of Florida and our children."

"But I think the thing that is in him, which the doctor says is incredibly treatable and we are holding on to that, the cancer -- is related to your work up here -- our work -- to be done. It's related to the hydrilla that clogs the Wacissa River. It's related to the red tide. My child is a microcosm for what is happening in this whole state. I will spend a lot of time seeing that he gets the best care. Of course, any of us would.

"But I will not stop speaking for the things that are schizophrenic in the way we do business in our state and on our continent. And you know what those things are. And you are in such a position of leadership. So I really didn't know if I could be here with you. But I wanted to say to you, 'Keep it up.' Say 'no' when you need to say 'no' ... and say a prayer for us."

Then Cerulean said she would like to end with a prayer:

"Align us, oh beauteous one, with your purposes. Open our ears, our inner- and our outer-eyes, to the particular work you would have us do..."

"We are hungry to know what is our part, what is the thing each of us needs, that we were put on this planet to do?

"Our lives are so short but our hearts are so strong. We know when we serve other life forms and our children, we also serve ourselves.

"Teach us to be as persuasive as the pelican
as inevitable as the ancestor
as relentless as the raptor
as relaxed as the tide
as reliable as the moon
as present as the swallow-tailed kite to the wind."

Visit Cerulean's Web site at

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Friday, April 17, 2009

State agency seeks emergency fishery declaration

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is asking Gov. Charlie Crist to seek federal aid to help the long-line fishing industry in Florida cope with proposed emergency federal regulations.

Long-line fishing uses numerous hooks extending from fishing lines that are hundreds of yards or several miles in length. In Florida, commercial long-line fishing boats provide grouper for restaurants and grocery stores, but environmental groups have criticized long-line fishing as harmful to threatened and endangered sea turtles that are unintentionally killed.

A proposed emergency federal rule would shift long-line fishing to deeper Florida waters to reduce the killing of sea turtles protected under the Endangered Species Act.

On Wednesday, a group of conservation organizations said they are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service to take additional actions including possibly shutting down deep-water long-line fishing.

On Thursday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said the emergency rule already proposed would force the fishing fleet to covert to a different type of gear, creating "serious economic hardships" for the industry.

The commission adopted a resolution requesting the governor to seek a federal declaration of a "commercial fishery failure" eligible for federal aid. A spokesman for the governor said the resolution is being reviewed to determine what action is appropriate.

Federal data shows 861 sea turtles were caught by reef commercial fishermen between 2006 and 2008, with at least half being released alive. The environmental groups said the agency in 2005 determined that 114 sea turtles could be captured during a three-year period without violating the Endangered Species Act.

Moving the long-line fishing to deeper waters is not enough, said Marydele Donnelly, director of international policy for the Caribbean Conservation Corp. in Gainesville.

"What we are saying is we want them to close (the bottom long-line fishery) until they can figure out how to fix it," she said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Senate includes Florida Forever funding

The Senate Ways and Means Committee today voted to include $50 million in the proposed 2009-10 state budget for the Florida Forever land-buying program and $50 million for Everglades land acquisition.

The state has purchased 2.4 million acres since 1990 under Florida Forever and its predecessor program, Preservation 2000. The program has received $300 million a year since 1990.

Gov. Charlie Crist this year again proposed $300 million for Florida Forever. But with the state facing a $6-billion budget deficit, neither the House nor Senate included the program until the Senate included it today.

The Nature Conservancy today thanked Senate leaders for what the group said was a bipartisan effort to fund the land-buying program.

“These are highly challenging economic times,” Jeff Danter, TNC's Florida director, said in a statement issued by the group. “The effort by these legislators to come up with innovative solutions under adverse circumstances demonstrates their commitment to preserving Florida’s natural resources. We look forward to working to make this artful compromise a reality.”

For more information about Florida Forever, go to

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Hays withdraws Wekiva septic-tanks amendments

Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, has withdrawn two bill amendments that were intended to prevent the state from requiring more expensive septic tanks to reduce nitrogen in springs along the Wekiva River in Central Florida.

The Florida Department of Health has proposed a rule that requires home sellers in the Wekiva River area to upgrade their septic tanks before selling. The rule was proposed under the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act of 2004, according to DOH. But the Orange and Seminole county commissions have asked the state to delay action after residents raised concerns about the cost of new septic systems.

DOH says the systems cost $3,000 to $10,000 more than standard septic tanks. Hays said better science is needed to justify the cost.

"I am not in favor of allowing the continued destruction of that river and springs," Hays said. "It is a treasure of Florida and we need to protect it. But I want that protection to be done on a scientific basis."

He said he doesn't know if the amendments will be reintroduced during the legislative session, which ends May 1.

A preliminary state study found that 26 percent of nitrogen came from agriculture fertilizer, 22 percent from septic tanks and 20 percent from residential fertilizer use.

1000 Friends of Florida and Audubon of Florida this week issued e-mail alerts saying that the Hays amendments violated the compromise in 2004 that allowed an expressway to be built through the area while protecting land and water.

In response to Hays' comments, Audubon's Charles Lee said the nitrogen from septic tanks is reduced more easily than from other sources.

Map extracted from DOH and University of Florida IFAS poster "Nitrogen Input Assessment for the Wekiva Study area."

The poster, proposed rule and scientific studies are available at:

See Orlando Sentinel Commentary:,0,5315513.column

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Commercial, recreational fishermen at odds on grouper

The state's fish and wildlife agency today proposed a rule that would reduce grouper fishing in anticipation of new federal restrictions. But the agency also went further by banning commercial grouper fishing in state waters for an additional month as requested by recreational anglers.

Grouper are among the most popular sport fish in Florida's Gulf of Mexico waters. But they are vulnerable to fishing when they gather in huge numbers in the spring in near-shore waters and when they spawn deep offshore around rock reefs.

Recreational and commercial fishing groups often blame each other for overfishing and are at odds over new rules being adopted. That was the case again today when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission considered proposing a state rule that was consistent with proposed new federal regulations for grouper fishing.

The Coastal Conservation Association Florida proposed the longer closed season for commercial fishing in state waters, saying commercial and recreational anglers should be treated alike. CCA Florida primarily represents recreational anglers.

"Recreational fishermen are doing their part to recover the fishery," said Ted Forsgren CCA Florida executive director. "It is real difficult for them to not be able to fish in state waters, but then commercial fishermen can come in there and take 6,000 pounds during the spawning season. It doesn't make any sense."

But the commission didn't accept other recommendations from Forsgren's group to impose the same new daily limit of four groupers on commercial fishermen that is being proposed for recreational anglers. Commercial fishermen said imposing a daily limit would put them out of business.

Commercial fishermen, represented by Organized Fishermen of Florida, said they provide seafood for Florida's visitors and families who don't have fishing boats. They said they will agree -- reluctantly -- to the closed season in Florida waters but not the additional restrictions proposed by CCA Florida.

"The perception of us allegedly being able to harvest large amounts of fish during the closed season will make you and us look bad," said Jerry Sansom, executive director of Organized Fishermen of Florida.

Also today, the commission voted to reduce the red snapper season by six weeks in response to a federal proposal to do the same to reduce overfishing. Both state rules for grouper and snapper will be voted on at the commission's meeting in Crystal River in June.

For additional information on the proposed grouper rule, go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission web site at .

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Turtle harvesting ban approved by wildlife agency

A measure that would prohibit the commercial harvest of freshwater turtles in the wild received preliminary approval from the state's wildlife agency on Wednesday.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted unanimously to move forward with a proposed rule intended to protect turtles and halt increasing shipments of turtles to Asia for food. The agency enacted a temporary rule last fall and began work on the proposed rule after Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter urging action.

From 2000 to 2005, turtles shipped from the United States increased dramatically. Exports of common snapping turtles were up 1,200 percent while the shipment of softshell turtles climbed by 270 percent. Biologists and Commissioner Brian Yablonski compared the turtle harvest to the near extinction of bison in the 1800s on the plains of North America.

"I think this is probably, as a commission, one of the most significant conservation measures we will pass in my time on the commission," Yablonski said. "Fortunately, Floridians will never know how significant it is because the crisis will never materialize."

But some turtle collectors and operators of commercial turtle farms said the measure was too restrictive and could put them out of business. Agency officials said the rule, which they called the most restrictive in the nation, was intended to encourage turtle farming to replace the harvesting of turtles in the wild.

The draft rule will be considered for approval at the commission's June 17-18 meeting in Crystal River.

Also Wednesday, a group of conservation organizations said they are suing the National Marine Fisheries Service to force action quickly to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles from death and injury in the Gulf of Mexico. Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and a coalition of conservation groups are urging the federal agency to impose immediate protections for species imperiled by the Gulf's bottom longline fishery.

But at the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission meeting in Tallahassee, agency officials said many of the freshwater turtles that are being taken in Florida are not classified as threatened or endangered. Scientists said little is known about their populations because those species are difficult to monitor.

In China, one species of softshell turtle is down to the last two individuals, another species is essentially gone and two others are in decline, said Peter Meylan of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Scientists said Florida shouldn't wait for turtles here to disappear before taking action.

"If we allowed it, the Chinese -- more than 1 billion Chinese -- could and probably would eat every single turtle in existence in Florida in one year," biologist Dale Jackson said.

But some turtle farmers, who take turtles from the wild to increase their breeding stock, said the Chinese have begun farming their own turtles and that will reduce demand in the future. They also said there was no scientific evidence to show that harvesting was taking a toll on Florida turtles.

"We've gone from almost no regulation to very severe, restrictive regulation proposed here very quickly," said Daniel Parker of Haines City, who said he is a small-scale seller of turtles.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Springs measure tacked onto permitting bill

Ichetuckneee Springs State Park

Florida's home builders and developers got more than they expected Tuesday when a bill that would extend the life of permits for developments was amended to include springs protection.

SB 2026 was amended by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation to include the bulk of SB 274, the "Florida Springs Protection Act." Developers have opposed that bill, which was passed by the committee in March, because it could require advanced septic tanks and advanced sewage treatment in counties with major springs.

"It was a surprise to see it (springs protection) added to this particular bill when it's already in another format and has already been heard before this very same committee," Edie Ousley, communications director for the Florida Home Builders Association, said Tuesday.

Sen. Lee Constantine, the committee chairman and sponsor of the springs bill, said the move will force the House to take the springs bill seriously. There is no House companion bill to SB 274 but there are House companion bills to SB 2026, which extend already-approved permits for three years.

"The bills they have (in the House) are really not strong environmental bills," said Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. "So if you are going to get them (House members) to work with you, you have to put it some place they will pay attention to."

Constantine has said the Legislature must act now to preserve its springs or risk losing an important part of its natural heritage.

Springs across the state have become choked with weeds and algae as nitrogen levels in groundwater have increased, scientists say. Sources of nitrogen include treated wastewater, septic tanks, fertilizer and livestock operations.

The Association of Florida Community Developers and the Florida Home Builders Association have raised concerns about the cost of the springs bill requirements to homeowners. A Senate staff analysis of SB 274 says advanced septic systems cost between $10,000 and $15,000 per household.

Meanwhile, developers and their supporters are backing bills, such as SB 2026, to reform the permitting process and extend permits until the housing and development markets improve.

Now that the springs measure has been tacked onto SB 2026, the Florida Home Builders Association will be giving the bill a second look, Ousley said.

"We would have preferred to see SB 274 (Florida Springs Protection Act) move on its own merits," she said.

Some environmentalists now are OK with SB 2026, the regulatory reform bill, with springs protection included.

"It's a developers' bill," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida. "We thought putting the springs bill on it was a nice little compromise between the things the developers wanted and what we wanted for the springs."

Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne and sponsor of SB 2026, was not immediately available for comment.

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ag Commissioner Bronson challenges land-buying

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson during a Cabinet meeting today challenged other supporters of the state's Florida Forever land-buying program to determine how many more acres the state needs for conservation.

The state has purchased 2.4 million acres since 1990 under Florida Forever and a predecessor program. Gov. Charlie Crist proposed $300 million for the program in 2009-10, but neither the House nor Senate have included money for it in their proposed budgets.

Cabinet members, including Bronson, voted today to adopt an updated purchase list with five new projects totaling more than 29,000 acres. But Bronson challenged Andrew McLeod of The Nature Conservancy after McLeod quoted studies citing the public support and economic benefits of Florida Forever.

"There is nobody who loves wildlife and natural resources more than I do -- I like to get out in it," Bronson said. "But I think we have to sit down and take a look at how far are we going to go, how much are we going to take off the tax roll, how are we going to take care of the land?"

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole responded that nearly one-third of the lands on the state's purchase list are "conservation easements" -- the very type of project that Bronson advocates. Crist was absent because bad weather prevented him from flying back from Tampa.

The state already owns 5.2 million acres of conservation lands, which is 15 percent of Florida's 34.7 million acres total. The federal government owns another 4 million acres of conservation land, according to a 2008 report by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory.

The Nature Conservancy last week issued poll results showing that 81 percent of Floridians have a positive impression of Florida Forever. Another report issued last month by TNC found that visitors to Florida's 161 state parks give the state economy a $1-billion economic shot in the arm.

But Bronson countered that the state should pursue more conservation easements in which the state purchases development rights but landowners retain ownership while paying taxes and producing products.

"We are looking at those tools to shape the future of Florida Forever," Sole, the DEP secretary, responded.

After the meeting, McLeod said Bronson had raised a good question about how many acres the state needs to own. But McLeod said it's a difficult question to answer -- and one the state is working on.

"We know there are habitat needs not being met today for any number of (threatened and endangered) species," McLeod said.

"We need to do more we need to invest in more protected habitat," he said. "That is part of the answer to the question of, 'How much is enough?' "

Cabinet considers land-buying, resolutions

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet today will be asked to approve a new Florida Forever list even as the House and Senate propose to eliminate funding for the land-buying program after nearly 20 years of continuous funding.

Also, today, the Cabinet will be asked to approve a list of proposed waterfront projects that will receive grants this year from the Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Program, which also receives Florida Forever money.

The Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Program, created by the Florida Legislature in 2008, provides $7.5 million per year to help maintain commercial fishing. Program officials are recommending the first grants, totaling $6.8 million, go to Brevard County and the cities of Apalachicola and Sebastian.

Also today, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson will ask the Cabinet to approve a resolution in support of "Landscape Architecture Month" in April. The draft resolution states that landscape architecture "fosters and promotes economically and ecologically sustainable development of Florida’s land and water resources for our present enjoyment while assuring future generations the same opportunity."

State CFO Alex sink plans to ask the Cabinet to declare April as "Water Conservation Month." A draft resolution credits the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association with promoting sound water management practices to protect Florida's water resources and environment.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Bill would presume permit applications are OK

A Senate committee Tuesday is scheduled to consider a proposal to shift the burden of proof for environmental permits from the applicants to agencies and individuals who are filing challenges.

A proposed committee substitute for Senate Bill 364 would include the provision that presumes applications submitted by licensed professionals are correct. Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, introduced the bill as chairman of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, which is scheduled to consider SB 364 on Tuesday.

The bill faces opposition from environmental groups. House Bill 1349, by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, was amended in committee to include the requirement.

"I believe if you are going to challenge a professionally licensed individual who's named in statute just because you have a personal concern with it (a permit application) I believe you should be prepared to foot the expense of fighting this," said Patronis, R-Panama City.

But Audubon of Florida representative Julie Wraithmell said the bill is transferring from agencies to private individuals the authority to determine whether a permit application is in the public interest. And those licensed engineers or others who submit applications may not be trained to assess the impacts to water quality, endangered species, archaeological sites or other public resources.

"At worst it's a recipe for fraud," Wraithmell said. "At best, it puts some of these individuals in the position of making a determination they are not in a position to make."

Bennett was not immediately available for comment late this afternoon.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Largest solar array planned in SW Florida

A former NFL football player-turned-developer has teamed up with Florida Power & Light to plan what the utility says will be the largest solar power array in the world.

Developer Syd Kitson and an FP&L official were joined by environmentalists in Washington to announce the plans to build in Southwest Florida a 75-megawatt solar array on 400 acres.

The solar array will be built at Babcock Ranch, where Kitson plans to build 19,500 homes and 6 million square feet of commercial space on 17,500 acres. Construction could begin by early 2010 with legislation allowing utilities to recover the cost of developing renewable energy and subsequent approval by the Florida Public Service Commission.

"I believe clean energy and sustainable development are the future of the American economy," Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, said in a statement issued by his company. "Babcock Ranch will be a living laboratory for companies, workers and families ready to reap the rewards of innovation. No other place in America will be home to such a concentration of new jobs and technologies, energy-saving advances and global economic leadership."

FP&L already is building what will become the largest solar array in the world -- a 25-megawatt plant on 180 acres in DeSoto County. That will be large enough to provide power for 3,000 homes.

The largest photovoltaic solar system now in North America is the Nellis Solar Power Plant in Nevada, which produces 14 megawatts of electricity.

The Babcock Ranch project will cost between $350 million and $400 million, FP&L officials said. Three other solar projects now being built by FP&L will add 31 cents to the average monthly bill of the utility's 4.5 million customers. Construction on the Babcock Ranch project could start in early 2010 and be completed in about one year.

"We are extremely excited to build one of the world's largest solar photovoltaic projects once the state legislative and regulatory authorities have taken the actions that would be required for us to move forward," said Eric Silagy, chief development officer for Florida Power & Light.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., praised the 20,000 jobs that are expected to be created at Babcock Ranch -- though only a few dozen will work at the solar plant -- and said the nation must start developing alternative forms of energy.

Representatives of the National Audubon Society, the World Wildlife Fund and the Sierra Club said the project will create the green jobs needed in the future to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reverse climate change.

"We really have to innovate like this to solve some of our larger environmental issues across the country like air pollution and global warming," said Bob Perciasepe, COO of the National Audubon Society. "We are very happy this is moving ahead."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Crist visits DEP, urges House action on energy bill

Gov. Charlie Crist said today he called House Speaker Larry Cretul on Monday to urge the House to take action on a bill that would set requirements on utilities for producing renewable energy.

HB 1319 would adopt the recommendation of the Florida Public Service Commission and Gov. Charlie Crist that utilities produce at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. The bill was filed Feb. 27 but hasn't been heard by a House committee, prompting criticism from House Democratic leader Franklin Sands on Monday.

During a tour of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection headquarters today, Crist told that he "would share that encouragement" and that he had also asked Cretul for the House to take action.

"I spoke, in fact, with the speaker yesterday about the renewable portfolio legislation," the governor said, "and so I think we are going to start to see movement there."

"I called him because I thought there was a need and I was very encouraged by the nice response I got," he said.

A spokeswoman for Cretul today said the conversation Monday was "very cordial" and the House is waiting to see what the Senate does.

The Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation committee Monday voted unanimously to approve SB 1154, which would require at least 15 percent renewable energy and allow an additional 5 percent of nuclear as part of a proposed "clean" energy standard. Crist said today he was encouraged the committee had approved an energy bill.

During his tour of DEP, the governor signed a "clean boating" pledge card and marveled at historic Everglades documents and portraits of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Marjory Stoneman Douglas. The DEP building, with its reflective "copper-top" facade along Interstate 10 in Tallahassee, is named for the late Douglas, an author whose "The Everglades: The River of Grass" book championed Everglades protection.

Crist, who has received praise from environmental groups for his stance on climate change, said the visit to the DEP headquarters was his first.

The governor was briefed on the status of Florida's oil drilling buffer in the Gulf of Mexico, the legal fight over water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, recreation along the Suwannee River "wilderness trail" and DEP's "green lodging" certification program for hotels.

"Thanks to your leadership our green lodging program has just taken off," DEP Secretary Mike Sole said. There are now 452 certified green lodging participants, a 254-percent increase since January 2008, when Crist signed an order directing state agencies to use green lodging participants for events.

Crist, who owns a boat with a cleaner four-stroke engine, said he wasn't aware of DEP's clean boating program until his visit today. He signed a pledge card and received a clean boating program flag for his vessel.

"You just give this out when somebody does that?" Crist said. "That's great."

Rally urges support for Florida Forever

Copies of the 2009 Florida Forever Conservation Photography Calendar were distributed by groups and agencies at the Capitol on Monday. Image published with permission from University Press of Florida.

With budget cuts threatening to end the nation's largest land conservation program, environmental groups on Monday released poll results they said showed support for the state's Florida Forever land-buying program.

The poll of 600 registered voters found that 81 percent had a "positive impression" of the program and that 67 percent supported continued funding for the program. The funding support was the same for Democrats, Republicans and those with no party affiliations, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The Florida Forever Coalition commissioned the poll by Public Opinion Strategies on March 18 and 19. The error rate for the poll was 4 percent.

Florida Forever and its predecessor program, Preservation 2000, have received $300 million a year since 1990, leading to the purchase of 2.4 million acres, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Neither the House nor the Senate versions of the proposed 2009-10 budget include money for Florida Forever. Gov. Charlie Crist has said he remains hopeful the Legislature will find money for the program. (See April 2 story at

At a rally Monday at the Capitol, state CFO Alex Sink, Sen. Paula Dockery and environmental group representatives urged support for the program.

"These are tough economic times, but let's celebrate," Sink told "We have preserved over 2 million acres of Florida's land. That's enormous. We are the envy of the country."

With the Legislature working to reduce a $6 billion deficit projected for next year, Sink also said this isn't the year to provide the full $300 million for Florida Forever.

"That will all be worked out in the next four weeks" before the legislative session ends on May 1, she said. "This is a juggling game. You've got to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and see what monies are available perhaps to do some scaled-back version of the program."

Greg Chelius, Florida state director of the Trust for Public Land, said legislators should "just use common sense" so that future generations can enjoy the outdoors.

"I beg of the Legislature to put on their hats that say 'Common Sense' and go ahead and vote to fully fund Florida Forever, the nation's greatest land-conservation program," Chelius said.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, also said the Legislature should try to find some money for the program to take advantage of good land deals that are available now because of the economic downturn.

"Even in a tight year there are many of us in the legislative process who feel we should continue the program even if it is for a lesser amount," Dockery said.

Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Monday, April 6, 2009

Springs, energy bills pass but is House on board?

Two major environmental bills cleared hurdles today in Senate committees but doubts were raised publicly about whether either have a chance of passing this session.

SB 1154 by Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, would require utilities to produce at least 20 percent of their electricity from "clean" energy sources including nuclear. Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 proposed requiring more energy from renewable sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

SB 274 would require more expensive septic systems or sewer hook-ups in counties with larger first- and second-magnitude springs. The measure is intended to reduce nitrogen in groundwater flowing to springs, which have become choked with weeds and algae.

The energy bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation. King urged the committee to keep the bill moving to send the House a message.

"I'll tell you in advance we're having extreme difficulty with our colleagues on the other end of the hall, not only with this bill but others," King said. "I can't get an answer from them whether they want to do it or not."

Also Monday, House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands, D-Weston, sent a letter to House Speaker Larry Cretul criticizing the House leadership for a "shameful" lack of an energy package.

The Republican leadership is "not allowing anyone who has a good 'green idea' to have it properly considered during the current legislative session," Sands wrote.

Cretul, R-Ocala, was not available for an interview today, said his spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin. She said there is still time to consider an energy bill with four weeks left in the session.

But she also acknowledged there are concerns among House members about the possible cost of the bill. The Senate says the average household monthly electricity bill could increase $2.58 annually under SB 1154.

"It's a fact (House) members have taken a very cautious approach to this," Chamberlin said. "They don't want to see consumers pay a huge price increase."

King requested an amendment to take out a proposed 1-cent increase in the gasoline tax, with half of the $90 million raised annually going to energy projects. He said deleting the tax hike would help the bill win over some critics.

The springs bill, introduced by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, was approved unanimously by the Senate Committee on Community Affairs. Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and committee chairman, told reporters after the vote that he doesn't think the bill will be passed out of the Senate.

He pointed out that the bill lacks a companion bill in the House to make approval there easier. And he said the fiscal impact of the bill also raised concerns.

Bennett didn't identify the fiscal impacts. But a committee staff analysis, citing Florida Department of Health data, reports that advanced septic systems cost $10,000 to $15,000 compared to $3,000 to $6,000 for the standard septic tanks.

"It was important for Senator Constantine to have it heard," Bennett said. "We decided to hear it for public debate. It gives it that much more leg room for something he can have next year."

Constantine said he won't give up on the bill until the session ends.

"There are a lot of bills out there that can be used as companions," he said. "The fiscal (impacts) in my opinion are much less than the cost would be to not do anything."

The Florida Home Builders Association has raised concerns about cost and the Association of Florida Community Developers opposes the bill. Statewide environmental groups have supported the bill.

Copyright by Bruce Ritchie and