Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Expert: New Florida governor risks repeating past growth mistakes

A recommendation to Governor-elect Rick Scott that the state transportation, environmental and planning agencies be combined suggests a return to Florida's past growth management mistakes, a University of Florida planning expert said Tuesday.

Scott's regulatory reform transition team suggested combining the Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Community Affairs during the 2011 legislative session. The team also suggested that the state eliminate local comprehensive plan amendments as a barrier to job growth along with the "development of regional impact" (DRI) process involving state oversight of major developments.

Jim Nicholas, professor emeritus of both law and urban and regional planning at the University of Florida, said labeling the Department of Community Affairs a regulatory "job-killer" as Scott did during his election campaign is "laughable" because of the excessive amount of homes and commercial space that was built prior to the collapse of the real estate market.

Florida, Nicholas said, created its growth management system to reduce conflicts between neighboring counties and between cities and counties. Counties would frequently push landfills to the edge of their boundaries and push traffic and other problems into the next jurisdiction.

"We've been there -- we are doing full circle," Nicholas said. "And my view is we got people coming into office now who don't remember. They were either, frankly, living someplace else or are too young."

Some developers, he said, won't be happy with having the DRI process eliminated because that removes the regulatory protection for their approved developments. And he said he isn't sure what cost-savings would occur by merging three departments, which he said now have distinctive roles.

Transition team member Billy Buzzett said his group that looked at DCA didn't suggest merging the three departments. He referred questions about that recommendation to Regulatory Reform Transition Team Chairman Chris Corr, who could not be reached for comment.

Buzzett, an attorney from Santa Rosa Beach, said his group looked more at the role of the state in planning rather than any particular agency. He said some local governments now have sophisticated planning staffs and that the state could play a broader role in planning over a longer timeframe.

"You've got a lot of land that is held by a few of the large corporations or families," he said. "Does it make sense that more concentration and more focus be placed on that and to see if there is an opportunity for common ground between those [interests] and the state and the environmental community?"

Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, said combining the three agencies into one could work -- but it depends. Nicholas serves on the board of 1000 Friends along with other professional associations.

1000 Friends of Florida earlier this year failed to win legislative reauthorization of the Department of Community Affairs. Pattison said having a growth management agency still is important, but he added that a consolidated agency could work with the right leadership.

"You are going to have somebody who believes in the growth management mission -- that there is a state oversight role," he said. "And with that function and role comes the same authority to say 'no' from time to time."

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Judge not pleased with Florida in Everglades case

A federal judge on Friday expressed support for a new $1.5 billion federal plan to reduce Everglades pollution while raising concerns with Florida's response to the proposal, according to the Associated Press.

United States District Judge Alan. S. Gold, who in April threatened the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with contempt of court over chronic water problems, on Friday told agency officials he will use his authority to help implement the new plan quickly. The Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe sued the federal government for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act.

The EPA developed a $1.5 billion plan for clean up of water flowing into the Everglades. But South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Carol Wehle wrote a letter to the court in September saying her agency couldn't afford the projects, citing declines in property tax revenue because of the real estate market.

According to an AP report, the judge said Friday that he was "not all that pleased" with Florida's lukewarm response to the EPA proposal.

View Larger Map

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced a plan to raise another 5.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail highway across the Everglades, where work now is underway on a one-mile bridge. Along with other restoration projects, the new bridge would allow an unconstrained flow of water to Northeast Shark Slough.

"If ultimately authorized and funded by Congress, this proposal will benefit the environment and economy of South Florida," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a news release. Everglades National Park officials and environmental groups, including the National Parks Conservation Association, also said they were pleased with the announcement.

Back in court on Friday, a top U.S. Justice Department official said EPA would press forward with its plan without delay, according to AP.

Parker Thomson, attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the state mainly wants control over issuing the stricter discharge permits, which EPA could take over if they don't meet certain standards. Thomson said Florida could do a better job regulating the farm discharges, but nothing happens immediately.

"We can do it, and we will do it," Thomson said. "You can argue about the amount of time, but you can't argue reality -- it will take time."

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Attorneys defend court ordering Florida environmental groups to pay

Attorneys for Martin County and two development firms are defending a state appeals court decision ordering environmental groups to pay for challenging a Martin County land-use decision.

The 1st District Court of Appeal on Tuesday ordered 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance to pay attorneys' fees for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, Martin County and two development firms, Martin Island Way LLC and Island Way, LC.

Judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas said the environmental groups' appeal was frivolous. They said the groups couldn't show how they were affected by Martin County's decision to reduce the lot sizes required in a newly designated fringe "urban service" area and therefore lacked standing.

But an attorney for the groups said he agreed with Judge William A. Van Nortwick Jr., who wrote in dissent that the sanctions "will create a precedent that will severely chill appellate advocacy." The groups said Martin County failed to provide predictable and meaningful standards for the new land-use designation to protect environmental resources.

The Florida Department of Community Affairs in July filed a response with the appeals court stating that the groups have legal standing to file the legal challenge and that sanctions against them were not appropriate. A department spokesman said Thursday that agency officials are still reviewing the ruling.

The development firms asked the court to order the groups to pay attorneys' fees, which could total more than $20,000, said Bill Hyde, an attorney for Martin Island Way LLC and Island Way, LC. He said the initial challenge and subsequent appeal were "bizarre" given that his clients contend the land-use change will enhance environmental protection in Martin County.

"I would say that it [ordering attorneys' fees] is frankly long overdue," Hyde said. "This case ... should never have been brought in the first place."

Martin County did not ask the court to impose sanctions but agrees with the order even though the county's legal costs are negligible, Assistant County Attorney David Acton said.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Federal court to hear Everglades case Friday

Leading up to a federal court hearing in Miami on Friday, Friends of the Everglades is calling on the state to require polluters rather than taxpayers to pay for cleaning up the "River of Grass."

Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe have sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over failure to clean up water flowing into the Everglades. U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold in April issued a blistering order criticizing EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for circumventing requirements of the federal Clean Water Act.

Gold in September ordered EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to appear at the hearing in Miami. But that order was overturned by the 11th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a Sept. 30 letter to the court, representatives from the South Florida Water Management District said a $1.5-billion list of projects outlined by the EPA over the next nine years cannot be achieved. District Executive Director Carol Wehle said the district's property tax revenue had dropped by 30 percent since 2008 because of the collapse in the real estate market. Likewise general revenue appropriations from the Legislature had dropped by 78 percent.

Friends of the Everglades says sugar farmers should be paying for the cleanup -- not state taxpayers.

"The state could be doing much, much more to fairly allocate the costs of pollution between taxpayers and the people who caused the pollution," said Alan Farago, the group's conservation chairman.

A water management district spokesman declined to comment beyond referring to the Sept. 30 letter. And DEP on Wednesday filed a 26-page notice of compliance with the federal court, saying state and federal agencies were "acting expeditiously" to comply with court orders.

Representatives of U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Crystals on Thursday were not immediately available for comment.

(Photo provided by the South Florida Water Management District. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Florida appeals court orders enviro groups to pay attorney fees

A state appeals court ruled on Tuesday that environmental groups must pay the attorneys fees of Martin County, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and development interests for appealing a land-use case.

Richard Grosso, an attorney for the groups 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance, says the ruling sets a chilling precedent for groups that seek to enforce state growth management laws.

Martin County in 2007 reduced from 20 acres to two acres the minimum lot size required in 191,000 acres of designated agricultural land in western Martin County. 1000 Friends of Florida and the Martin County Conservation Alliance filed a legal challenge, contending the land-use change failed to establish meaningful and predictable standards for protecting environmentally sensitive lands.

An administrative law judge determined that the change won't create urban sprawl or more development because homes would be clustered on smaller lots with open space set aside for agriculture, conservation or parks.

When the groups appealed, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that they lacked the legal standing because they were not affected since there was no increase in development. The majority of the three-judge panel then imposed sanctions and ordered the groups to pay legal fees incurred by the county, DCA and intervenors Martin Island Way LLC and Island Way, LC.

But in dissent, Judge William A. Van Nortwick Jr. said the case was "not close to providing a basis to impose sanctions." The erroneous standard used by the majority to impose sanctions "will create a precedent that will severely chill" those who seek appeals, Van Nortwick wrote.

Attorneys representing Martin County and the intervenors could not be reached for comment. Grosso, executive director of the Everglades Law Center in Fort Lauderdale, said his clients will consider their options, including appealing to the Florida Supreme Court or asking the 1st District Court of Appeal to rehear the case.

Grosso said his clients disagree with the administrative law judge's finding of fact that the groups will not be affected. And Grosso said that in response to their appeal, the majority judges with the 1st District Court of Appeal relied on the same facts established by the administrative law judge, creating a "Catch-22" that resulted in the sanctions.

"Enforcement of the growth management act will be a nullity" if the ruling stands. Grosso said. "No one will seek to enforce it any more out of fear of sanctions for attorney fees."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Florida PSC approves rate freeze for Florida Power & Light

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday voted 5-0 to approve a settlement with Florida Power & Light Co. to resolve a controversial rate-hike request denied by the commission earlier this year.

The PSC denial in January of a $1 billion rate hike request played a role in the Senate's refusal in April to confirm two reform-minded PSC members appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Two other commissioners were ousted last summer by the PSC Nominating Council appointed by the Legislature.

In August, Attorney General Bill McCollum, FPL and other intervenors agreed to a settlement in the rate case. The agreement would freeze utility rates through 2012 while preserving the company's return on equity.

Approval had been delayed by a legal challenge filed in September by FPL with the First District Court of Appeal. The utility sought to have Commissioner Nathan Skop removed from cases involving the utility. FPL says Skop, a former utility employee, has blamed them for the PSC Nominating Council's decision not to nominate him for another term.

But the PSC asked the court to allow the rate case to move forward on the settlement agreement. FPL says the agreement would help its 4.5 million customers by allowing its rates to remain among the lowest in the state.

On Tuesday, representatives of the Attorney General's Office, the Legislature's Office of Public Council, the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, the Florida Retail Federation and FPL urged the commission to adopt the agreement.

Industry groups said the agreement would provide predictability for electricity rates through 2012.

The settlement was a result of numerous meetings, phone calls and drafts, said attorney Vicki Gordon Kaufman, representing the Florida Industrial Power Users Group.

"A lot of it wasn't very pretty," she said. But she added that the agreement is one "we all think is in the best interest of our clients and the state."

Senior Assistant Attorney General Cecilia Bradley credited the utility for giving in on some issues. She said the agreement emphasizes the goal of the PSC to provide reliable energy at affordable rates.

"A lot of people are still struggling with the economy," Bradley said. "And a rate freeze will be greatly appreciated, I think."

Commission Chairman Art Graham called it "amazing" that the sides were able to reach an agreement and he said that the resolution makes it easier for the commission.

"I'm glad you guys did the fighting before we had to get involved," Graham said.

Skop said the settlement agreement validates the commission vote earlier this year to reject FPL's rate increase. The return on equity agreement, he said, is exactly what was ordered by the commission earlier this year.

"While that decision was criticized, history has shown … the commission made the right decision in light of the fact the utility is financially healthy, is earning a reasonable rate of return and is able to pay dividends," Skop said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cold weather pushes manatee deaths past last year's record

This manatee was rescued from Wakulla Springs during a cold weather snap in February 2008.

The number of manatee deaths in 2010 is already more than 50 percent higher than the record number that died in 2009 -- with cold weather this year having taken a heavy toll on the lumbering sea cows, Florida wildlife officials said Friday.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission documented 699 manatee deaths in state waters through Dec. 5 compared to 429 documented in 2009, the agency said. Manatees, the state's official marine mammal, are listed as endangered by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Cold exposure accounted for at least 244 fatalities while many of the 203 with undetermined causes of death may also have suffered from the cold. Wildlife officials said the die-offs underscore the importance of warm water habitat, such as springs and power plant outfalls.

"We are very concerned about the unusually high number of manatee deaths this year," Gil McRae, director of the agency's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said in a statement. "Data from our monitoring programs over the next few years will tell us if there are long-term implications for the population."

The new figures also could fuel the debate on whether there are enough boating restrictions to protect manatees or too many to allow for boating enjoyment.

The cold weather likely caused fewer fatal collisions with watercraft earlier in the year as manatees congregated in warm water, wildlife officials said. But the number of deaths was increasing later this year and could match last year's 97 deaths caused by collisions.

Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association Florida, a recreational fishing group, said the deaths in 2010 suggest a need for determining the "carrying capacity" for manatees -- or factors that limit the manatee population such as access to warm water in the winter.

He noted that the agency's aerial survey earlier this year counted 5,067 manatees statewide, an increase by more than 1,200 animals from 2009.

"I think the question they would need to be very cautious about is whether they need any additional [boating restrictions]," Forsgren said.

The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission earlier this year got out of the debate about whether manatees should be classified as threatened or endangered. The commission now automatically lists any species that are classified by the federal government as threatened or endangered.

The deaths show that manatees are vulnerable and that continued boating restrictions and improvements in warm water habitat is needed before the species is reclassified, said Pat Rose, president of the Save the Manatee Club.

"They [federal wildlife officials] are going to have to reassess where they are, both with good things happening with the population but also this horrible thing happening right now with the unprecedented mortality in the population," Rose said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, December 10, 2010

Florida DEP credits controversial federal water standards

Environmental groups say this algae bloom in 2009 on a tributary of the St. Johns River was fueled by excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection official on Thursday for the first time sounded a note different from the sharp criticism leveled by state officials and industry representatives towards new federal water quality standards.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November adopted limits on nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes, streams and rivers, with agency officials saying the limits are needed to prevent algae blooms in waterways and toxic red tides along the coast. But many elected officials and industry representatives criticized the new standards as being costly to cities, utilities, industry and agriculture.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a federal lawsuit against the EPA on behalf of the state and Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. McCollum said the standards were adopted in an "arbitrary and capricious manner" and were an abuse of agency discretion.

On Thursday, DEP's Jerry Brooks told the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation that the EPA standards incorporated enough flexibility to allow the state to decide whether to implement them. Those comments also were a striking difference from the criticism leveled against the EPA earlier this year when then-DEP Secretary Michael Sole told legislators they should "be afraid" of aspects of the EPA proposal.

Brooks told the committee Thursday that the EPA rule, by delaying implementation for 15 months, allows Florida to work with utilities and industry groups to help understand the standards. The delay, he said, also allows those utilities and groups to seek federal waivers for certain waterways.

EPA also has assured wastewater utilities they won't be required to use expensive reverse-osmosis treatment, Brooks said. Wastewater utilities previously estimated the cost of meeting the standards at $97 billion over 30 years.

"I don't want you to think that as I stand here today that we think the rule EPA adopted is perfect," said Brooks, who is director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

But he added, "I believe their rule has maintained enough flexibility we can do that [adopt state regulations] and capture those things we don't think they did exactly right in the development of the regulations."

But representatives of wastewater utilities along with the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group sharply criticized EPA and the new federal standards.

EPA's "slipshod" approach will delay the cleanup of waterways, said Paul Steinbrecher, representing the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council.

He also said the federal rule still requires reverse-osmosis for wastewater treatment -- at a huge cost to utilities' customers -- even if EPA officials are saying utilities will receive waivers.

"Why would you publish a rule with these limits and then say, 'But most everybody is going to get out of it and will have to meet some other number instead'?" Steinbrecher said. "That makes no sense."

After the meeting, Brooks told The Florida Tribune that industry groups still are dealing with uncertainties and frustration with the federal rule-making process. He said it will be up to the administration of Governor-elect Rick Scott to decide whether the state wants to implement the new federal standards.

"In the end they [EPA officials] left a rule sitting there on the table that doesn't box us in," Brooks said.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation said he didn't know if the committee would develop legislation but he said it will work with state agencies on the issue. He said the committee's priorities may be developed as issues arise during the 2011 legislative session.

(Photo by Chris Williams, GreenWater Laboratories/CyanoLab, provided by environmental groups involved in a federal lawsuit over water quality. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Florida water disputes won't be focus of new panel, chairman says

The chairman of a new select House committee addressing water issues said Wednesday she expects it to deal more with water quality issues and less with water quantity except for "big picture" issues.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he is establishing the Select Committee on Water Policy and he named Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, as chairman. She also is chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Cannon said in a memo that the "use and management of our natural resources presents one of the most pressing challenges for the long-term health of our state."

Williams told the Florida Tribune the committee is expected to produce a report before the legislative session on what issues the committee will deal with. And the committee will hold meetings at least into the summer.

"This just happened yesterday," she said. "I haven't spoken to the speaker yet. I have to get his vision for the committee."

Williams said she expects the committee to examine the state's conflict with the Environmental Protection Agency over water quality criteria adopted by the federal agency in November. Attorney General Bill McCollum announced Tuesday the state is filing a federal lawsuit against the EPA to challenge those numeric criteria for phosphorus and nitrogen in lakes, streams and rivers.

With the issue being played out in the courts, it's not clear how the Legislature can get involved. But Williams said the committee should review the state's pollution limits -- called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) -- to compare them with the federal criteria.

"You got all the TMDLs from the water management districts and the [state] 'best management practices' [to reduce pollution]," she said. "Why isn't that good enough?"

The establishment of the committee raises concerns that the simmering dispute between water-rich North Florida and water-poor South Florida will be reopened, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. There has been talk for more than 15 years -- but no real proposals -- of building pipelines from growing South Florida cities to take water from North Florida lakes and rivers.

"What I would be worried about is whether we would shift the balance of water resource policy away from water resource [protection] towards creating new water supply," Draper said.

Williams said she didn't think her committee would reopen those water wars issues. "I think what we're going to be doing is more big picture issues," she said.

She said the committee may examine whether treated or "reclaimed" waste water should be controlled by state permitting agencies or the utilities and industries that produce it. And she wants to put timelines in some bills, like the northern Everglades restoration legislation of 2007, "to make something happen."

Cannon said in his memo he expects next week to name other members to the select committee.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Florida Cabinet approves Gainesville biomass plant

A proposed wood-burning power plant in Gainesville that would be tied for being the largest of its kind in the nation was approved Tuesday by the governor and Cabinet.

In their last meeting before leaving office, the four elected Cabinet members voted unanimously to approve a power plant construction and operating certificate as recommended by an administrative law judge. American Renewables still must receive a state air pollution permit, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is awaiting a recommendation from Administrative Law Judge Robert E. Meale on a permit challenge.

Gov. Charlie Crist, Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink have pointed to such woody biomass plants as an important source of renewable energy in Florida's future. But some proposed projects around the state have been delayed or scrapped because of local opposition.

Bronson said Tuesday opponents had "shouted down" projects using "misinformation and faulty science." Attorney General Bill McCollum said the Cabinet must determine that a legal error occurred to reject the judge's recommendation for approval.

"I think this can be a great breakthrough," Crist said of the project, adding that he had "great trust and great confidence" in the groups that supported it.

Gainesville officials said the project will produce jobs and renewable energy using waste wood and will reduce the city's reliance on coal burning. Project supporters include the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Forestry Association and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"The project has something of value for everybody," Gainesville Mayor Pro Tem Jeanna Mastrodicasa said. At 100 megawatts, the project would produce enough power for 70,000 homes. It would be tied with a plant under construction in Texas for being the largest woody biomass plant in the nation, according to American Renewables Inc.

An attorney for former Mayor Thomas Bussing, who filed a legal challenge against the siting permit application, said it was premature under state law for the Cabinet to vote because the air permit had not been issued. Opponents argued that the plant will contribute to pollution and global climate change and puts Gainesville utility customers at risk of rate increases to pay for the project.

"I would like to say this is not green energy," Alachua County resident Maria Minno said. "Biomass incineration has unacceptable health risks."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Big Cypress land deal goes through despite concerns

In their final meeting before all four members leave office, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet voted Tuesday to approve the transfer of 29,412 acres of state land to the federal government as an addition to Big Cypress National Preserve.

The Cabinet also approved an option to purchase a 2,848-acre conservation easement in Polk County from The Nature Conservancy for $5.6 million. The group will have nine months to find a buyer willing to abide by the development restrictions imposed by the conservation easement.

Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum are leaving office in January after unsuccessful bids for other offices. Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson is leaving office because of term limits. The next Cabinet meeting will be Jan. 18.

The Cabinet in September delayed action on the Big Cypress land transfer until after the National Park Service issued a proposed management plan for the property, which it did in November. Bronson raised concerns that a federal designation of the former state land as "wilderness" could restrict hunting, use of recreational vehicles and mechanical control of wildfires.

Big Cypress Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos said the National Park Service will work with the state before asking Congress to designate some of the addition as wilderness.

"Trust me, we will make sure that appropriate land makes it onto that proposal" for Congress to consider, Ramos said. And he said the management plan can be adjusted in the future by following processes established under federal law.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, said neighboring ranch owners are concerned about wildfire spreading from the preserve. And he said off-road vehicle use, including "swamp buggy" races, are "important to who we are" in Collier County and that more vehicle trails are needed.

"I would ask you do not take away our last chip in the game [the state land transfer] until we have these issues truly resolved," Hudson said.

Environmental groups urged the Cabinet to approve the deal, which includes $4 million for the state to buy other land. Former Gov. Reubin Askew and Hobe Sound environmentalist Nathaniel Reed sent letters in support of the deal.

Bronson and McCollum said Ramos' assurances that he will work with the state swayed them to support the deal, which was approved 4-0.

"I will vote today to support the motion though I still have some hesitancy knowing things can change overnight," Bronson said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, December 6, 2010

Huge Florida biomass plant up for Cabinet vote

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables proposed plant in Gainesville

A proposed woody biomass electric plant that would be one of the largest of its kind in the nation could move a step closer to reality with a Cabinet vote on Tuesday.

American Renewables and the city of Gainesville are proposing the 100-megawatt biomass plant on 131 acres at the city's Deerhaven power plant. The plant would burn 1 million tons per year of mostly waste wood to create enough electricity to power 70,000 homes, according to the company.

Gov. Charlie Crist, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson have encouraged the development of biomass energy. But proposed projects around the state have faced stubborn local opposition and legal challenges, causing plans for some to be delayed or scrapped. The proposed vote Tuesday comes just weeks before Crist and the three Cabinet members will leave office.

Supporters say the proposed Gainesville Renewable Energy Center will produce jobs and renewable energy without contributing to climate change. The proposed plant has received support from Bronson, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen, Republican Sen. Steve Oelrich and former Democratic Sen. Rod Smith, both of Gainesville.

The plant would be the largest in the nation, tied with a facility under construction near Sacul, Texas, said Josh Levine, director of project development at American Renewables in Boston. He said the Gainesville plant actually will reduce pollution by using limbs and leftover waste wood now burned in the open without emissions controls as part of timber operations. And he said the plant will help create more than 700 jobs in the region, including 44 at the plant.

"In addition to being renewable energy projects, they [biomass plants] are economic development projects," Levine said.

But some environmentalists have raised concerns about pollution and the impact on forests around Gainesville, and the local NAACP chapter has raised concerns about the size and cost of the plant. Twenty-one people have signed up to speak at the Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Several leading opponents in Gainesville could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The Cabinet will consider Administrative Law Judge Robert E. Meale's recommendation that a power plant construction and operating certificate be issued. The company still must receive a state air pollution permit, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is awaiting a recommendation from Meale on a separate legal challenge to a proposed permit.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Senate environmental chairman wants to repeal septic tank inspections

The new chairman of the Senate's environmental committee has introduced a bill that would repeal a new requirement that septic tanks be inspected every five years.

The inspection requirement in SB 550 earlier this year was promoted by supporters as a springs protection measure. But legislators voted during the special session on Nov. 16 to delay the program start from Jan. 1 to July 1 after an outcry from some rural landowners about the cost. That bill has still not been sent to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has the power to veto it.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, has introduced SB 130 to repeal the requirement during the 2011 legislative session. Sen. Lee Constantine, a Winter Park Republican who was committee chairman before leaving office in November because of term limits, filed SB 550 along with an amendment to include the inspection requirement.

Dean says septic tank inspections should be required only in "critical areas" to be defined around springs rather than statewide.

"We need to treat every springshed different on its own merit and on its own environmental concerns," Dean told the Florida Tribune. "If we have a springshed, what contaminants do we have on Silver Springs (in Ocala) as opposed to one 15 to 18 miles in the woods some place?"

In 2009, Dean opposed a springs bill that would have established protection zones around springs. He proposed several amendments that led to the bill being delayed in its final committee stop. (See "Senator proposes slew of springs bill amendments." )

The Florida Department of Health now estimates that the inspections will cost $150 to $200 and septic tank pump-outs will cost $150 to $450 each, according to a bill analysis. If the inspection discovers failures in the system, homeowners would have to pay for those repairs.

Jim Stevenson, former chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force, says the Legislature's delay of the inspection program is a "cop-out." He said the program was promoted as a springs protection measure but most of the benefit would go towards protecting drinking water quality for residents with private wells.

He said establishing springs protection zones, as Dean suggests, would also help water quality. But he said the Legislature from 2005 to 2009 failed to adopt Senate bills that would have taken such action.

"They (legislators) have had an opportunity to do it the past five years but they haven't," Stevenson said. "So when are they going to act?"

Dean is co-sponsor of SB 82 filed by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Daytona Beach, which would also repeal the septic tanks inspection requirement. Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, has filed a a similar measure with HB 13.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Agency withdraws proposed growth rule changes after veto override

The Florida Department of Community Affairs has withdrawn two controversial proposed rule changes because of the Legislature's override of the governor's veto of HB 1565.

HB 1565 requires legislative approval for proposed regulations that could cost more than $200,000 a year for all businesses across the state. Supporters said the bill would prevent agencies from imposing burdensome costs on businesses while environmental groups argued that it would tie the hands of agencies that enforce environmental laws.

In vetoing the bill, Gov. Charlie Crist said the requirement could create more red tape for businesses and require legislative approval for nearly every agency rule. The House voted 99-21 and the Senate voted 32-7 to override the veto during the Nov. 16 special session.

The Department of Community Affairs last week published a notice saying it was withdrawing proposed growth management rule changes.

DCA spokesman James Miller said while there were no cost studies done, both rules obviously would have triggered the requirements for legislative review. He said they also were withdrawn because they could not get approved before Gov.-elect Rick Scott took over.

"We decided we would cease rule-making and the new administration could pick up where we left off or wipe the slate clean and start over," Miller said.

Both proposals faced opposition from industry groups.

One proposed change would have established a requirement that local governments demonstrate the need for more development by comparing population growth projections with the amount of development already allowed. DCA Secretary Tom Pelham said several counties already allow far more development than is needed. But the Association of Florida Community Developers said that proposed rule change could restrict local economic development and that it overextends DCA's authority.

The other proposed change would implement requirements of 2008's HB 697, an energy bill that required local government growth plans to discourage urban sprawl and include greenhouse gas reduction strategies. The Association of Florida Community Developers and the Florida Chamber of Commerce raised concerns about the potential cost for small businesses while the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group said the proposal was not authorized by the Legislature in HB 697.

Charles Pattison, president of the growth-management advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida, said businesses may suffer if agencies have to enforce laws but can't adopt rules that create more certainty for businesses. "My sense is you will see many fewer administrative rules just because of the agency having to go through that process for the economic assessment," he said.

Gary K. Hunter, an attorney and lobbyist for Association of Florida Community Developers, said he supported HB 1565 but it had nothing to do with the proposed DCA rule-changes. "The legislature is in session in 60 or 90 days," he said. "It isn't as if there would have to be a long wait for the Legislature to look at those rules.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NOAA announces Gulf of Mexico grouper fishing restrictions

Federal fisheries managers on Tuesday announced they are imposing temporary restrictions on recreational and commercial fishing for gag and red grouper, two of the most important fishing species in the Gulf of Mexico.

Possible restrictions on grouper and snapper fishing earlier this year prompted an outcry from some state and federal elected officials. HB 553, a House memorial that called on Congress and the president to reduce the economic impact of fishing restrictions, passed the House on April 21 but was never taken up by the Senate.

On Tuesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a temporary rule to prohibit recreational fishing for gag grouper in Gulf federal waters for six months beginning Jan. 1. NOAA's Fisheries Service also announced it is reducing the red grouper allowable catch by one-third next year for both commercial and recreational fishermen.

Actions on both species were taken because of declining fish populations, NOAA officials said. The Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council requested the temporary rule for gag grouper while the council explores long-term measures.

“This was a difficult decision but a necessary action to protect the Gulf gag grouper population,” Roy Crabtree, southeast regional administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said in a statement. “We hope this is a short-term action and will look to increase the harvest of gag as soon as possible.”

In a House committee hearing earlier this year, recreational and commercial fishing groups criticized proposed federal restrictions on grouper and red snapper fishing while some environmentalists defended them as helping conserve fish stocks to allow larger catches in years to come.

On Tuesday, a representative of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, a Tallahassee-based group which represents commercial fishing businesses, said the federal agency's science is inadequate to support the new restrictions.

"From our perspective until they do the proper science they don't know how many fish are out there," said Bob Jones, the group's executive director. "If they don't know how many fish are out there, how can you manage them?"

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pelham says he's leaving Florida growth agency

By the Florida Tribune

The embattled head of Florida's growth management agency has made it official that he will no have role in the administration of Governor-elect Rick Scott.

Tom Pelham, who has been the head of the Department of Community Affairs under two separate GOP governors, wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist on Nov. 8 saying he intended to resign from his job by Jan. 3.

The move isn't surprising since Pelham recently labeled Scott's claims that DCA was killing jobs as “nonsense.” DCA has been under constant pressure the last several years with some Republican legislators even suggesting that Pelham needed to get a job elsewhere.

On Tuesday, Pelham said he thinks he has accomplished a lot but he said it was a “constant struggle” given the continuing criticism leveled at the agency.

“Playing defense all the time is no fun," Pelham told the Florida Tribune.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Florida Legislature overrides Crist vetoes on environmental bills

By the Florida Tribune

State lawmakers dealt with several environmental issues as they convened for a one-day special session on Tuesday.

Although most of the work involved overriding vetoes by Gov. Charlie Crist, legislators also discussed whether to approve one Crist-backed initiative. Legislators approved $31 million in federal stimulus funds to provide energy rebates for homeowners who bought solar panels, solar water heaters and energy-efficient air conditioning units. Currently a backlog of 13,000 solar rebate applicants are awaiting their payments of nearly $52 million.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said he is “not nuts about the rebates” but “a promise was made to the consumers” and the money is sitting there waiting for the legislature to take it and do the right thing.

One of the most highly contested measures brought up was HB 1565, which would require legislative approval of administrative rules adopted by the governor if they are deemed to have an economic effect. Those opposed to the bill say it will stifle economic growth at a time when Florida suffers from an 11.9 percent unemployment rate.

The Legislature also voted to delay by six months a septic tank requirement contained in SB 550. The requirement that septic tanks be inspected every five years is intended to protect groundwater and springs but has been second-guessed by legislators after hearing opposition from rural homeowners.

Read more at The Florida Tribune.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Florida park renamed for diver, filmmaker Wes Skiles

Florida park officials on Tuesday named Peacock Springs State Park near Live Oak in honor of cave-diver and filmmaker Wes Skiles, who died on July 21 while diving off the Palm Beach County Coast.

Skiles was a member of the Florida Springs Task Force and spoke at a rally for springs outside of the Capitol in February. His films included "Polluting the Fountain of Youth" in 1998 and "Waters Journey: Hidden Rivers," which was produced in 2003 at the request of the Springs Task Force.

“Wes Skiles’ passion for Florida’s environment was evident in his dedication to portraying the wonders of Florida through his masterful imagery,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew said in a statement. “Knowing Wes as I did, I’m sure he would be thrilled to have one of his favorite places named after him where it will be a reminder of his lasting contribution to Florida’s environment.” 

Skiles' company, Karst Environmental Services in High Springs, spent hours documenting the cave system at Peacock Springs State Park, according to DEP. A Skiles family member said the naming of the park was reason for celebration.

"The state did a beautiful job of putting together a nice ceremony today," said Jim Skiles, Wes' brother. "The family is extremely honored that Wes' extensive work in creating awareness for these springs will be preserved in the future."

Skiles was discovered dead in the water while filming during a dive for National Geographic about three miles east of the Boynton Beach Inlet in the Atlantic Ocean. His brother said the death was ruled accidental but authorities have not released additional details. A photograph by Wes Skiles of an underwater cave in the Bahamas was on the National Geographic cover in August. (See July 22 story).

Learn more about Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park at

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Photo provided by John Moran. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Feds unveil tougher Florida water standards

By the Florida Tribune
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized numeric nutrient standards for Florida on Sunday but decided to delay the implementation of the requirements for 15 months, leaving the door open for litigation.

The EPA’s numeric limits -- which were sparked by a lawsuit from environmental groups -- have been set for nutrients including phosphorous and nitrogen in Florida's rivers, lakes and springs to reduce algae blooms and coastal red tide events. The standards are for Florida only and affect five different watershed regions.

EPA officials said they delayed implementation for 15 months to give state and local governments time to review the standards and draw up plans to implement them while the state recovers from the recession.

"After extensive scientific study, multiple rounds of public discussion, and collaboration between the state of Florida and EPA, we’re ready to work together to tackle a problem that for years has threatened drinking water supplies, hurt tourism revenue and lowered property values,” said Peter Silva, Assistant Administrator for the EPA Office of Water

Read more at The Florida Tribune.

Also, learn more at the EPA web site on the new Florida water standards.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Constantine: Lawmakers knew about septic tanks mandate

By The Florida Tribune
As legislators seek to extend the implementation of new septic tank standards during the upcoming special session, outgoing Sen. Lee Constantine sent a letter to lawmakers requesting they back the standards and its timeline, just as they did during the past legislative session.

Under SB 550, the new standards would require that all septic tanks be inspected every five years. The Legislature took up the bill after hearing citizens' concerns about algal blooms, pollution and groundwater over-pumping from springs.

But Rep. Dean Cannon and Sen. Mike Haridopolos have agreed to push the start date of the new program from January 1, 2011 to July 1, 2011 due to recent complaints over the cost to pay for the new standards. That would give lawmakers an opportunity to revisit the legislation during next year's regular session.

Constantine stated in his letter that his bill did not hide anything and that the Legislature knew everything about the standards when they voted to approve the measure by a 30-3 vote.

“Never ... NEVER, was there any intent to hide or cover up this program in the bill,” Constantine said in the letter. “In fact, given the support received from all sides of the political spectrum; from Home Builders to the Sierra Club, my staff and I were proud of the consensus we were able to build on this issue.”

Read more at the Florida Tribune.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

DCA chief defends planning agency

It didn't get a lot of attention, but Secretary of Community Affairs Tom Pelham gave an impassioned defense of his agency this past week.

DCA has constantly come under fire in the last few years, especially as Pelham has criticized legislative efforts to change the state's growth management laws.

Pelham, however, fired back at critics when DCA was faulted for opposing a planned animal park in the Green Swamp area of critical concern in Central Florida.

He called it "demoralizing" that public servants at the land-planning agency were criticized for merely carrying out the laws and rules passed by elected officials.

Pelham also called the notion that DCA was "killing jobs" as nonsense, saying it was the economy and not state government that was to blame for a slowdown in development. He said the agency has blessed plenty of projects that have not gotten off the ground because of the financial collapse the last two years.

Read more about Pelham's remarks here at the Florida Tribune.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Enviromental issues a key part of upcoming special session

Florida's two incoming legislative leaders announced on Thursday that they plan to take up several significant environmental issues during a one-day special session planned for later this month.

The list for the Nov. 16 special session covers everything from septic tanks and energy rebates.

Both incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, agreed to override a number of vetoes by Gov. Charlie Crist after the 2010 session.

They also agreed, however, to approve an initiative Crist sought: approval of $31 million in federal stimulus funds to provide energy rebates for homeowners who bought solar air conditioning units. Currently a backlog of 13,000 solar rebate applicants are awaiting their payments of nearly $52 million.

The two also agreed to delay the implementation of a bill passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov Crist. SB 550 requires that all septic tanks be inspected every five years. The Legislature took up the bill after hearing citizens' concerns about algal blooms, pollution and groundwater over-pumping from springs. Cannon and Dean agreed to push the start date of the new program from January 1, 2011 to July 1, 2011 to allow time respond to recent complaints about the new requirements, as well as to determine the most cost-efficient way to run the program.

You can find out more about the environmental issues that will be discussed at the special session here at the Florida Tribune.

Monday, October 25, 2010

EPA taps Florida's Hankinson as director of Gulf restoration panel

John H. Hankinson Jr., a Florida native and former regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, was named Monday as executive director of the new federal Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order earlier this month establishing the task force, which will coordinate restoration programs and projects following the BP oil spill last summer. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, a New Orleans native, was named as chair of the task force, which will hold its first meeting in Pensacola on Nov. 8.

Hankinson is chairman of Audubon of Florida and served as regional EPA administrator from 1994 to 2001. He previously was in charge of land acquisition at the St. Johns River Water Management District and was a staff director at the Florida House of Representatives.

“I spent my childhood on the Gulf and I am proud and honored to have the opportunity to carry out the president’s commitment to restoring this vital ecosystem,” Hankinson said in a statement, issued by the EPA, in which Jackson announced the appointment.

Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday praised Hankinson's selection.

"John understands the strong link between Florida’s economy and the Gulf, especially for our tourism and seafood industries. Nothing is more important to Florida’s future than cleaning up any oil that remains in the Gulf of Mexico,'' the governor said in a statement.

Information about the Nov. 8 task force meeting will be announced later, the EPA said. The president's order establishing the task force is available by clicking here.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Photo provided by Audubon of Florida. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, October 15, 2010

Federal official defends Gulf oil spill reporting

MISSOULA, Mont. -- NOAA Administrator Jane Lubcheco on Friday defended as "consistent" her description of the fate of oil spilled last summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, an oil industry representative told environmental journalists that the nation must continue deep-water oil drilling as an important economic driver in the Gulf region.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank in April, causing more than 200 million gallons of oil to gush into the Gulf of Mexico until July 15, when the leaking well a mile beneath the surface was capped. The spill caused waves of oil to wash ashore near Pensacola and caused beach tourists to cancel vacation plans across Florida.

On Friday, Lubchenco was on a panel at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference at the University of Montana to discuss lessons learned. In August, NOAA released a report showing that about 50 percent of the oil had been collected, burned or dispersed while another 50 percent remained in the environment or had been evaporated or dissolved.

White House Advisor Carol Browner, former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation from 1991-93 and a former U.S. EPA administrator, told television audiences in August that 75 percent of the oil from the spill was gone.

Asked at the SEJ conference how that misrepresentation had been spread in the media, Lubchenco said, "There has been a lot of confusion about a lot of things different people said about it. I have been consistent in saying exactly what I just told you."

Some of the dispersed oil remains as microscopic droplets. But she said the water with the dispersed oil looks like drinking water and that there isn't an "undersea lake of black oil" that has been described in some press coverage.

"But dispersed and dilute (oil) does not mean benign," she cautioned. "That could still have very serious consequences to the small creatures and medium-size creatures in the ocean. That is what we remain very concerned about."

Doug Rader, chief oceans scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, said that the worst-case fear of oil being delivered by the Gulf Loop Current into the Florida Keys, Cuba and around to the Atlantic coast had not been realized during the oil spill.

"I'm not trying to suggest that we actually dodged the bullet, because I don't think we did," he said. "I think the total impact, as Dr. Lubcheco suggested, has yet to be fully written. There are plenty of out-of-sight, out-of-mind ecological elements that took it on the chin."

The oil industry has been examining its practices to ensure that another such oil spill does not occur, said Kyle Isakower, vice president of policy analysis at the American Petroleum Institute.

"Clearly things went horribly wrong," he said. "This served to spur the oil and gas industry to reassess our activities. It has created an acknowledgement on behalf of the industry that we must improve."

But Isakower also said that deepwater drilling must continue. The Obama administration earlier this week lifted a moratorium on deepwater drilling in the western Gulf of Mexico, prompting criticism from Florida Gov. Charlie Crist who said such offshore drilling remains a threat to Florida's coast.

The oil industry, Isakower said, has created a start-up company with $1 billion to be used for oil spill containment.

"It is essential from both an economic and energy security standpoint that we resume operations in the Gulf," he said.

Panel moderator Mark Schleifstein, a reporter at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, opened the discussion by saying that journalists deserved blame rather than praise for failing to report on the risk of oil drilling before the spill.

"The one thing (Hurricane) Katrina taught a number of people (including journalists) … was that ignoring residual risk -- you do only at your own peril," Schleifstein said. "Just like with the levee system of New Orleans, we ignored residual risk (of oil drilling) in the offshore community."

"We had the opportunity to write stories well in advance of this disaster about the potential residual risk," he said. "And to be honest, we blew it. There was no washing away (oil) washing up on shore from this event -- from any newspaper in the United States."

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Florida closes on scaled-back Everglades purchase

The South Florida Water Management District on Tuesday closed on the purchase of nearly 27,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in a scaled-down version of the once-massive Everglades restoration project.

Gov. Charlie Crist in 2008 first proposed the purchase of 187,000 acres, which the district agreed to buy for $1.3 billion. But the economic downturn caused the state to twice scale back the purchase while critics, including the New York Times, suggested that the deal was payback for U. S. Sugar's support for Crist.

Crist and environmentalists maintained that the deal was a historic step forward for the Everglades, allowing the state to buy key parcels of land to restore flow between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades' "River of Grass." Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink has supported the revised deal but her Republican opponent for governor, Rick Scott, spoke out against it in August.

The water management district on Tuesday completed the purchase for the 26,791 acres for $197.3 million. The governor said in a statement Tuesday the deal creates a brighter, more secure future for the Everglades.

“Today’s land purchase creates significant opportunities for Florida’s environment," Crist said. "With these 26,800 acres, we are one step closer to making our dreams of true restoration for the Everglades a reality."

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew along with representatives of the South Florida Water Management District, the Earthjustice law firm and the Everglades Foundation also heralded the deal.

But U.S. Sugar's rival, Florida Crystals, said the purchase won't help the Everglades because the district doesn't have enough money to complete restoration projects. Florida Crystals executives have been raising money for Scott, who supports sticking with the earlier Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that didn't include the U.S. Sugar land buy.

"Buying land doesn't solve anything for the Everglades," said Gaston Cantens, vice president of corporate relations at Florida Crystals. "They haven't built a single project."

(Photo provided by the South Florida Water Management District. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Argenziano quits Florida PSC to support Alex Sink for governor

Nancy Argenziano announced Tuesday she is resigning from the Florida Public Service Commission to support Democrat Alex Sink in her race against Republican Rick Scott for governor.

Argenziano -- who was elected as a Republican state senator -- told reporters she is resigning to speak out against what she considers to be a "catastrophe" facing the state if Scott is elected. State law prohibits commissioners from endorsing or supporting political candidates and causes, she said.

If Scott is elected, Argenziano said there would be no balance of power or check on the Republican-led Legislature. And she said Scott was scheming to raise electric rates on residential customers effectively by seeking to lower commercial rates and increase utilities' earnings.

"I do not know that I can effectively portray the immensity of the danger of a marriage between the clowns, cowboys and crooks of the current Republican-led state Legislature and Rick "the Fifth Amendment" Scott," she told reporters, reading from a prepared statement.

Argenziano was scheduled to leave office in January because she was passed over for re-appointment by the PSC Nominating Council in June. But she said her speaking out is not because of "sour grapes," rather she is angry at the corruption that she sees with the influence of utilities over the Legislature and the PSC.

Scott campaign spokesman Joe Kildea responded to Argenziano's endorsement by saying, "It's amazing that anyone would publicly support CFO Sink as reports are simultaneously emerging about her authorizing felons to work in the insurance field and access the sensitive and personal information of Floridians."

The Sink campaign issued a statement saying, "Alex Sink is proud to receive the endorsement of a proven consumer champion with a record of standing up for Floridians." Sink herself told reporters that the authorizing of people to work in insurance was required by state law.

Argenziano spoke to reporters for 45 minutes, firing criticism at, among others, the Republican Party of Florida, Senate President Jeff Atwater, incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, PSC Commissioner Lisa Edgar and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and chairman of the PSC Nominating Council.

A spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida had no immediate comment nor did a spokesman for Atwater. Haridopolos declined to comment through a spokesman in the Senate president's office.

Later Tuesday, Argenziano said she also was endorsing "for equally good reasons" Gov. Charlie Crist, running as an independent for U.S. Senate, along with Democrats Dan Gelber for attorney general and Loranne Ausley for state chief financial officer.

Argenziano pointed out that she was giving up three months of her $130,036 annual salary to speak out against Scott and the Legislature. She said she will return to her home in Citrus County but added that she has no employment plans.

A spokesman for Crist said the PSC Nominating Council would have to recommend a replacement for the remainder of Argenziano's term. Julie I. Brown, an associate legal counsel for the First American Corp., was named by Crist last month to fill Argenziano's seat in January when her term was set to expire.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, October 11, 2010

State nixes bear workshops because of hunting controversy

State wildlife officials on Monday postponed workshops on black bear management because they said too many people wanted to talk about hunting bears. But it was a state wildlife official who publicly suggested that hunting should remain an option in the future.

The state banned bear hunting in 1994 because of an outcry from animal rights activists, environmentalists and news media that reported on bears being shot in trees where they fled from dogs during legal hunts.

Bears face continuing threats from development and are being killed on roads in increasing numbers while they occupy only 18 percent of their historic range in Florida, according to a draft management report. Still, some residents have raised concerns about there being too many of bears roaming through some rural residential areas and eating from trash cans.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said it had intended for a series workshops across the state to focus on the draft plan to ensure "a sustainable and socially acceptable" bear population, according to an agency statement released Monday. Instead, the agency said much of the media attention and comments at the first three workshops has been on the topic of reintroducing bear hunting.

"Although there is significant interest from a wide range of perspectives, each of the workshops ended in debates on hunting rather than on discussions of the plan itself,” said Tim Breault, director of the commission's Division of Habitat and Species Conservation.

David Telesco, Florida's bear management coordinator, told WTSP News that hunting should remain an option in the future for controlling the population. Thirty-one of the 40 states with black bear populations allow hunting, according to the draft report.

Jen Hobgood, the Florida director of the Humane Society of the United States, disagreed in the WTSP report with allowing hunting as a method of controlling interaction with bears and people.

The agency on Monday issued a statement saying it was not proposing to allow hunting because wider stakeholder involvement would be needed to explore that option.

Agency staff will determine how they can bring the focus of the discussion back to the management plan and will hold workshops when senior leadership can attend, Breault said. The agency canceled public meetings scheduled for Tuesday in Naples and Oct. 19 in Perry.

To learn more about the draft report, got to

(Black bear photo courtesy of FWC. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Environment a neglected issue in Florida governor's race

1000 Friends of Florida, a group focusing on growth management issues statewide, sent a questionnaire last month to the eight major party candidates in the state Cabinet races.

The number of responses: Zero, said Charles Pattison, the group's president.

That may be telling about the importance that growth and environmental issues are playing in this year's governor's race. With less than four weeks until the election, neither candidate in the governor's race has said much publicly about those issues.

Voters are telling pollsters that the economy and jobs are the top issue, with the environment and other social issues ranking very low, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc.

There is some mention of jobs in the governor's race, but the environment is not alone among the issues being ignored, Coker said.

"The governor's race has become nothing more than a food fight," he said. "Nobody is talking about any issues."

Democrat Alex Sink last week quietly released her environmental platform to select groups. Republican Rick Scott has said little about the environment while championing "energy independence" including more nuclear power. And he supports offshore drilling, in contrast to Sink and most environmental groups.

The Sierra Club announced Friday it was endorsing Sink. Even voters who are most concerned about the economy should be able to tell from the BP oil spill how important Florida's environment is to its economy, said Cecilia Height, Sierra Club Florida's political chair.

"You can see how the environment and the economy are intricately linked in that scenario," Height said. "Those [Florida Panhandle residents affected by the oil spill] are still hurting and will be hurting for many, many years to come."

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Scott, with chamber chairman Steve Halverson saying that Scott's experience in creating jobs "is the type of leadership that Florida's economy needs."

People are wanting jobs, not the "latest and greatest environmental regulation," said Adam Babington, the Chamber's vice president for governmental affairs.

Scott has on a few lines on the environmental issues section of his Web site. Regarding the economy, he says he is against "job killing regulations." That kind of talk doesn't provide comfort to growth management supporters, said Pattison, of 1000 Friends of Florida.

The group is concerned about the Florida Department of Community Affairs, whose future was left in question this year when the Legislature refused to reauthorize the agency as part of the "sunset review" process. Sink says she will support the agency, but Scott said in a St. Petersburg Times report on Friday that he favors getting rid of the agency.

"The reason we keep plugging away at it [growth management] is we think there will be a recovery at some point," Pattison said. "We don't want to see mistakes made again that we didn't learn from in the current situation."

To learn more about both candidates' positions on the environment and to find links to their campaign literature on the topic, go to, see "Sink quietly releases environmental Plan to Key Groups" by the Florida Tribune.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

La Niña contributes to tough Florida wildfire season forecast

Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson on Friday predicted a tough wildfire season because of a long-range weather forecast calling for dry conditions.

Wildfire season typically peaks in January and extends until June, though fires can break out any time because of dry conditions. The dire forecast should cause state and federal parks and other land-management agencies to take notice along with local fire departments and rural landowners.

This year wildfires have burned nearly 39,000 acres, according to the Division of Forestry. A single wildfire in 2007 burned 600,000 acres in North Florida and South Georgia and forced evacuations in Columbia County.

A lack of any major tropical storms this year has contributed to dry conditions along with a La Niña weather pattern, which is expected to continue until at least early next year. La Niña is the name given to a weather pattern that is caused by unusually cold water temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

"This weather cycle calls for a warmer and drier winter here in Florida," Bronson said in a statement. "And when you combine that with the lack of any real rainfall associated with tropical systems so far this season, we have to expect a tough wildfire season ahead."

He said homeowners can protect themselves and their property by cleaning roofs and gutters to eliminate flammable debris, keeping areas directly next to their homes free of flammable materials and making sure their landscaping within 30 feet is sufficiently watered to deter flames. For more information, go to the Division of Forestry website.

(Photo by Mark Wolfe/FEMA via Wikipedia Commons. Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rick Scott takes aim at Florida DCA

Republican candidate for governor Rick Scott says he would put a bull's-eye on the Florida Department of Community Affairs, the scorn of many developers.

Scott said he would support eliminating DCA, which oversees growth in the state, according to a St. Petersburg Times report on Friday.

"On the campaign trail, I'll tell you the one that everybody's fed up with. It's DCA," Scott says. "It's really impacted people that want to build things ... I'll tell you, it's really killing jobs."

But DCA Secretary Tom Pelham said that eliminating the agency would be "disastrous." Environmentalists have had to frequently defend the agency from criticism.

Supporters of Amendment 4, also known as "Hometown Democracy," pounced on the story on Friday. The ballot measure, which faces opposition from developers and business groups, would require voters to approve local comprehensive land use changes.

Pelham said that whenever economic times are bad in Florida, "the tendency is to point the finger at whatever planning or regulatory system exists," even though that same system exists when times are good.

Democrat Alex Sink has said she supports reauthorizing the department. The future of the agency was left in question last spring when the House refused to reauthorize the agency.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the incoming House speaker, says in the Times story that he wouldn't mind seeing DCA disappear, with its functions distributed to other agencies.

Amendment 4 supporters said in a statement Friday that Scott's comments provide yet another reason to support the measure.

"The only hope that Floridians have for responsible, healthy growth in our state is to adopt Amendment 4 and have the ultimate say on development in their community," Florida Hometown Democracy president Lesley Blackner said. "If we leave growth management to Rick Scott and Dean Cannon, we truly will see Florida paved from East Coast to West Coast."

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Meek rejects Sierra Club endorsement with Crist in Senate race

The Sierra Club's endorsement of both Gov. Charlie Crist and U. S. Rep. Kendrick Meek in the Senate race on Thursday took a surprise turn when Meek immediately rejected the endorsement.

Sierra Club officials said both Crist, a former Republican now running as an independent, and Meek, a Democrat, have strong environmental records -- especially compared to Republican Marco Rubio, a former Florida House speaker. But Meek immediately rejected the endorsement, calling it an "insult" to Florida's environmental community.

"I cannot in good conscience accept an endorsement from an organization that would stand with a governor who has consistently put developers, oil companies and the special interests first," Meek said.

Sierra Club officials said Crist has a strong record of supporting Everglades restoration, opposing proposed coal-fired power plants and taking action on climate change. Meek has a 100 percent voting record with the national League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club said. In contrast, the Sierra Club officials said Rubio continues to support offshore oil drilling and has questioned the science behind climate change.

Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club, told the Florida Tribune after the Meek rejection that the group was sticking by its dual endorsement.

"That came as a surprise to us -- we were not expecting it," Jackalone said of the rejection. "Right now our only response is we feel just as comfortable as we did before with our endorsement of both candidates."

Crist said he was honored by the Sierra Club endorsement, adding that Florida's economy is "inextricably linked to the health of our environment."

“As Governor, I fought to restore the Everglades, ban offshore drilling by constitutional amendment, increase energy efficiency and conservation and reduce climate change," Crist said. "I look forward to working with the Sierra Club in Washington along with all those Floridians looking for independent leadership so that we can create a green energy economy that will benefit our people and our environment.”

Rubio campaign spokesman Alex Burgos said in an e-mail: "We wear the Sierra Club's criticism as a badge of honor. It seems they have a lot in common with Charlie Crist, since they tried to have it both ways in this race."

Polls suggest that Crist and Meek are battling for the same Democrats and moderate independent voters, and some analysts say the two could allow Meek to win by splitting that voting bloc. But Sierra Club officials, hoping that Rubio (who is leading in polls) will finish third in the race, rejected the idea that the Sierra Club endorsement could assist in the Republican victory.

"We think that Rubio's record is so extreme and so out of step with mainstream voters in Florida," said Cathy Duvall, Sierra Club's national political director, "that we can be helpful in this race by being sure that people who don't necessarily understand know where he stands on issues get that information."

Download the Sierra Club endorsement by clicking here.

Read Meek's statement in response by clicking here.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting