Saturday, October 22, 2011

About 150 protest outside environmental journalism conference

Some said they felt welcomed by the Society of Environmental Journalists, others felt marginalized by the organization.

More than 100 protestors for varying causes held signs, beat drums and chanted Saturday at a "Rally for the Environment" in a park outside the International Hotel in Miami, site of SEJ's national conference.

Ana Campos of Fort Lauderdale described herself as one of the "culprits" who organized the event, involving more than 40 groups in South Florida along with the Miami version of Occupy Wall Street.

She said the groups were welcomed by SEJ and felt they were "preaching to the choir."

"We are celebrating them (SEJ)," Campos said. "We are the ones who couldn't afford it (to participate in the conference) so we infiltrated their conference. And we were greeted with applause and hugs and thumbs up."

While SEJ conference participants boarded buses for three-hour mini-tours of environmental sites, the rally participants held signs protesting a variety of issues including Monsanto Co. and genetically-modified foods, Florida Power & Light Co. for its proposed nuclear power plant expansion at Turkey Point and Florida Gov. Rick Scott for his environmental policies.

Liam Scheff, an independent journalist who has written for independent newspapers in Boston and New York and for, said he felt marginalized because so few SEJ members came over to visit the rally.

"They should have walked over across the street -- that's all," Sheff said. While he said only two to four came over, he pointed out "a couple of hundred people got on those (tour) buses."

"I guess I just would have expected more of them to care," Sheff said. "I guess if we had pictures of Paris Hilton or what's her name -- Demi Moore -- and Ashton Kutcher, we would have more (coverage)."

Matthew Schwartz held a sign saying, "No FPL power plant in panther habitat" -- a reference to what he says is a possible Florida Power & Light Co. natural gas power plant in Hendry County.

What was different about Schwartz was that he also was on the SEJ conference agenda. As executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, he spoke Friday during the "Florida's Iconic Critters" panel.

He said Saturday that south Florida's landscape, with its biodiversity and threatened species, is a national treasure that deserves the attention of a broader audience.

"This (protest) is sending a message in a different way," Schwartz said. "Hopefully we will get some good press coverage about this."

Monday, September 12, 2011

Rumberger remembered as tireless champion for Everglades

E. Thom Rumberger was remembered Monday as a champion of the Everglades who was gracious and effective while also helping build the modern Republican Party in Florida.

Read more at the new

(Photo by Mark Wallheiser/, used with permission.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Future of state growth management in question under new department

Doug Darling, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity

The head of the new department that will house Florida's growth management division says he'll have to decide future growth management decisions on a case-by-case basis.

SB 2156, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott on June 14, abolishes the Florida Department of Community Affairs and transfers its planning division to a new Department of Economic Opportunity by Oct. 1.

Coupled with other growth law changes, some environmentalists have worried that the department's development mission will trump state laws designed to curb urban sprawl and protect communities and natural areas.

Doug Darling, an aide to Gov. Rick Scott, will be executive director of the new Department of Economic Opportunity. The Division of Community Development will consist of about 32 planners, down from 61 last year at DCA's Division of Community Planning.

In an interview earlier this month, Darling said the new law changes placed growth decisions in the hands of local government while the state's role is to focus on large-scale land-use planning.

"So what I believe will happen on a local comprehensive plan amendment or something like that unless it is an area of critical state concern, the state will not weigh in," Darling said.

The law changes also call for the state to get involved in areas of "significant" state resources. Environmental group representatives argue that it's unclear what those resources are because they have not been identified.

Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy, said in June he's concerned that decisions by planners to challenge development projects may get overruled in the new department.

"Will it [growth management law] be rendered nonfunctional by pressure from the top of the Department of Economic Opportunity?" Lee said.

Darling says if the former DCA planners say a development is a bad idea, then "I think I will act much like any other agency head who takes staff recommendations and who perhaps has sometimes a different perspective on things."

"Maybe they are focusing on one thing too much, or I may absolutely support them," he added "I will take it on a case-by-case basis."

A transition team progress report on Aug. 15 lays out the organizational structure of the new department. A consultant's report issued Aug. 19 discuss recommendations for the new department to help businesses create jobs.

There is little discussion of the new department's growth management role in an 82-page consultant's report beyond mention of programs and responsibilities on pages 54-55.

In his earlier interview, Darling said he doesn't see economic development and growth management as being in conflict.

"Our growth management has always included an economic development element," he said.

Lee said this week that Darling's appointment was good because he has an environmental background as former inspector general of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

But Lee also said the question remains whether growth management will survive within the department. The culture of the department, as established by Darling, will be the key factor, Lee said.

"We will probably have some early tests where the (former) Division of Community Planning is in a position to do something and either does or doesn't," Lee said. "And some resources will be either protected or sacificed because of that."

(Governor's Office photo. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nestlé drops idea of water pumping near Wacissa River

Nestlé Waters North America on Wednesday told state officials the company no longer is considering a water-pumping operation along the Wacissa River in Jefferson County.

Nestlé, a global water company which includes bottling operations near Blue Spring in Madison County and near Crystal Springs in Pasco County, said testing of Allen Spring along the Wacissa showed a lack of sufficient flow during droughts. The company had not yet filed for a permit but faced local and regional opposition to the idea of pumping.

"We have shared this data with the Suwannee River Water Management District to support their ongoing assessment of the watershed and informed them that this concludes our exploration of spring sources on the Wacissa River,” said Kent Koptiuch, Florida natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America.

Water bottling has raised concerns among some residents who don't like the idea of selling a public resource or worry about the effects on area wells, stream flows and aquatic life. Company officials, who also tout the jobs created by their plants, said they conducted tests along the Wacissa River to ensure there would not be environmental harm.

Georgia Ackerman, president of the Friends of Wacissa, said she doesn't doubt that the company is dropping the idea of pumping from the Wacissa River springs. But she said her group is not going away.

"Obviously the Friends of the Wacissa coalition is elated at the news," Ackerman said. "We will continue our work on springs protection issues."

In the Florida Capitol, the issue of water bottling has been lopsided in favor of the bottling companies in recent years.

The Legislature established a six-percent sales tax exemption on bottled water in 1998. Bills by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, to remove the exemption died in committees in 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a surcharge on bottled water but the idea never made it into the state budget after Big Bend Democratic representatives voiced opposition.

(Photo by Richard Zelznak. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gopher tortoises became candidate for federal protection

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that gopher tortoises warrant federal Endangered Species Act protection in Florida and Southern states east of the Mississippi.

The tortoise will become a candidate for listing as threatened and endangered east of the Mississippi River including Florida. But the gopher tortoises won't be listed for protection because the agency doesn't have the money, said Cynthia Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We never know as much as what we would like to know," Dohner said. "But we know tortoise habitat conditions are deteriorating and its habitat is more and more fragmented across the southeast."

Gopher tortoises face threats from development and lack of proper forest management including lack of prescribed fires in their upland habitat, agency officials said. In Florida, gopher tortoises are listed as threatened and developers must relocate them away from construction sites.

The decision on Tuesday to list tortoises as a federal candidate species doesn't mean there will be any additional restrictions on landowners, federal officials said.

There are more than 250 species on the candidate list that are in line ahead of the gopher tortoise for evaluation and possible listing, agency officials said.

Gopher tortoises are considered a key species in upland forests because other threatened and endangered animals depend on their burrows for habitat. The tortoises can live to be over 50 years old, but do not reproduce until they are 13 to 21 years old.

Although there seems to be many gopher tortoises, the agency says the current generation is aging and not reproducing successfully because of degraded habitat. As older gopher tortoises die, they are not being replaced by young ones.

The decision to designate the gopher tortoise as a candidate for listing means landowners will be eligible for grants to improve their forest habitat.

Save Our Big Scrub and Wild South Inc. filed a petition in 2006 that led to the agency announcement on Tuesday to list the species as a candidate. Agency officials said they hoped to evaluate all species on the list within five years.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments in favor of protecting the gopher tortoise and said the announcement Tuesday provided hope for its protection.

“The gopher tortoise is clearly in trouble and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to need the help that only the Endangered Species Act can provide,” Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. "We hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will prioritize funding to make sure the tortoise gets the protection it needs."

A copy of the petition and the agency register notice can be viewed at .

(Images courtesy of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Florida PSC may reconsider energy goals set in 2009

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday rejected energy conservation plans proposed for the state's two largest electric utilities because of concerns about cost.

Instead, commissioners said they may reconsider the conservation goals set by the PSC only two years ago -- before the Legislature removed four of the five commission members at the time.

"Sometimes certain things work during certain periods and they make sense in terms of policy," Commissioner Ronald Brise said. "But when things change, sometimes we may have to change with the times to address the issues that are before us."

The PSC voted to reject plans for Florida Power & Light Co. and Progress Energy required under the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA) of 2008.

Instead the commission is asking that all seven of the state's largest utilities tell the agency how quickly they can provide updated information that can be used for setting new conservation goals. The decision on Tuesday leaves existing conservation programs, including solar rebate programs, in place at Progress Energy and FPL.

The agency staff had recommended approval of an alternative plan submitted by Progress Energy because of concerns about the cost to the utility's 1.6 million customers. That alternative plan would raise the monthly conservation cost from $3.24 now to a peak of $6.13 in 2014.

That plan would not have met the conservation goals set by the agency in 2009. A plan to meet those goals would have increased the monthly cost to $11.28 next year and $20 by 2017.

Agency staff recommended approval of an FPL plan that would meet the energy-saving goals set by the commission. That plan would have raised the monthly conservation cost for the average customer from $2.26 now to $4.11 in 2014.

Progress Energy officials said the agency set higher conservation goals for them compared to other utilities and they don't know why. They said achieving greater energy savings over existing conservation programs would cost more.

A representative of the Florida Industrial Power Users Group warned the commission that electricity rates are a key factor when companies decide to open plants and bring new jobs to Florida.

And the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which supported the conservation goals, argued that the PSC failed to conduct a thorough analysis to determine why Progress Energy conservation programs would cost so much more than for other utilities.

Commissioner Julie I. Brown asked whether the goals set by the PSC in 2009 were "too lofty." She is among the four new commissioners who replaced four commissioners last year when four reform-minded commissioners were not reappointed or confirmed.

Commissioner Lisa Edgar, the only commissioner remaining from 2009, responded that those goals were "robust and aspirational" as provided by state law. She said the law also provides flexibility for commissioners to re-examine the goals they have set.

After the meeting, Tom Larson of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the commission had "punted" on approving conservation programs that would benefit Florida residents.

He noted that the PSC on Tuesday also approved making more FPL commercial and industrial electricity customers eligible for a discount because they locate new operations in Florida or expand existing operations. Larson said no one asked what the rate impact would be on customers as they did with the conservation measures.

"One side of the mouth says one thing," Larson said of the PSC. "The next docket (case), they say the next thing."

Photo by Intergrated Building and Construction Solutions. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, July 25, 2011

Florida parks increase visitors after drop in previous year

Honeymoon Island State Park

Maybe the slow economy is encouraging people to rediscover nature. Or maybe the weather just was more inviting this past year.

For whatever reasons, attendance at Florida state parks increased slightly in 2010-11 following a sharp dip the previous year, according to state park officials.

Park attendance in fiscal year 2010-11 increased to 20.4 million, up 332,191 from 2009-10 for an increase of 1.6 percent. The increase comes despite the 2010 BP oil spill that discouraged beach tourism along with the continuing economic malaise.

Last year, park attendance dropped by 1.3 million, or 6.7 percent, from 2009-11.

Park officials last year said they couldn't explain the decrease. But the change followed the Legislature increasing park entrance fees from 40 to 60 percent in 2009.

The fee increase also resulted in a 20-percent increase in entrance fee collection despite the decline in attendance. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested the fee increase in 2009, saying it would help park visitors pay more of the cost of running state parks.

Another possible factor in the drop last year may have led to the increase this year -- weather.

Last year, record cold temperatures gripped the state during the winter and early spring of 2010. Much of the decline in visitation last year occurred at beach parks listed among the 10 most popular in the state.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and . Do not redistribute without permission.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Author hopes nature stories will turn around Florida politics

The environment didn't cause the recession so it shouldn't become victim of the current political climate.

So says Florida nature writer Bill Belleville, author of "Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams."

He hopes his new book will help people develop their own environmental ethic that may turn the political situation around for Florida environment.

Belleville, who lives in Sanford along the St. Johns River, has established himself as one of Florida's best modern nature writers, which is saying a lot. His previous books include "Deep Cuba," "Losing it all to Sprawl" and "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River."

The state has a great history of nature writers extending from William Bartram, Archie Carr and Marjory Stoneman Douglas to modern day novelist Carl Hiaasen and journalists Craig Pittman and Cynthia Barnett, a friend and former coworker.

But all the books in a library don't seem to make a dent on environmental issues as they're now being played out in the state Capitol.

Gov. Rick Scott says he is focused on boosting the economy and eliminating "job-killing regulations."

He also vetoed funding for the Florida Forever land acquisition program and signed bills eliminating the Florida Department of Community Affairs and making it more difficult for those who would challenge pollution permits.

This past legislative session was the worst in memory for most environmentalists as industry groups used the stalled economy to push through law changes.

"Nature didn't cause the recession," Belleville said, echoing former Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham and a few in the Legislature who point to the thousands of vacant condo units as evidence that regulations didn't burst the housing bubble.

Belleville hopes his book can make a difference, on the personal level and the political level. But he doesn't wade deeply into politics, other than to take an occasional shot at developers and their "shills" in the Legislature.

Instead, he takes us to Florida's beautiful places, such as Key Largo's colorful coral reefs and a sunset at Cedar Key to explain the history and natural riches that surround us.

Sometimes he holds up a mirror to reflect our society's reflexive response to something like the annoying midges in Sanford along the St. Johns River. The solution: Spray pesticides on the insects, as well as people enjoying an outdoor dining experience.

"Salvaging the Real Florida" is a grab bag of fascinating short chapters for easy bedside reading. And the introduction may be the strongest portion, for it lays out the threats to Florida and the need for people to connect to nature.

"I deeply respect those who get off their butts and take a stand without worrying about how it affects their job security, their perceived social standing or public image," Belleville writes. "The pervasive corporate mentality can breed a dangerous sort of toadyness in human nature that will sooner or later dissolve all that is righteous or fair."

But Belleville doesn't use "Salvaging the Real Florida" as a soapbox. In an interview, he explains that he uses the power of the narrative with the aim of changing people's lives.

"I'd really hope someone would read that book and say, 'I'd like to have a closer relationship with what is left with the natural heart of Florida," he said. "Maybe from that connection will come an ethic. Maybe next time when our current leadership comes up (for re-election), people will be more motivated" to take a stand.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gov. Scott's late parks announcement not a sneak attack, aide says

Scott told reporters after visiting DEP in February that he enjoys visiting state parks and they should be protected.

After a week of controversy involving Florida Park Service proposals to put recreational vehicle campgrounds in four state parks, Gov. Rick Scott announced last Friday he was pulling the plug on at least the proposal at Honeymoon Island State Park.

But was the timing of the governor's announcement -- after 7 p.m. on a Friday night -- a deliberate attempt to squelch publicity on the issue? No, says Amy Graham, the governor's traveling press secretary.

But don't blame an environmental reporter for at first being suspicious. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency previously had a track record for making sneaky announcements, a strategy dubbed by some reporters the "Friday night surprise."

But first, a little background on the firestorm in Florida.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in May it was considering putting new RV campgrounds in more than 50 parks that now lack camping. DEP said the campgrounds could help create jobs and encourage park visitation.

The proposal, which had created some concerns among environmentalists, became embroiled in controversy after the agency scheduled public meetings on proposed campgrounds at De Leon Springs, Fanning Springs, Honeymoon Island and Wakulla Springs state parks. More than 400 attended the Honeymoon Island proposal with hundreds more opponents unable to get in.

Then later last week, the Pinellas County legislative delegation scheduled a public hearing for this coming Thursday to discuss just that one issue. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, even established a "Save Honeymoon Island" Facebook site to organize opposition.

DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. returned from vacation early to deal with the issue on Thursday. And Scott announced Friday that the Honeymoon Island proposal was being pulled and that the other proposals would receive further review.

"The only reason that announcement came out as late as it did (on Friday) is because DEP briefed the governor's office late in the day," Graham said Monday.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's under President George W. Bush had a tendency to make controversial announcements late on Friday, when reporters may be less likely to cover an issue because they are out or are wrapping up other stories before the weekend.

Some environmental reporters dubbed the late announcements the "Friday night surprise." The Society of Environmental Journalists in March 2010 asked the EPA to stop the practice when possible and to try to provide advance notice to journalists. (See "SEJ Comments on How to Make EPA More Open"

Some critics of the proposed campgrounds in Florida State Parks said the process of approving appeared rushed. And they welcomed Scott's announcement, regardless of the timing on Friday.

"It appeared the people were given a chance to speak," League of Women Voters President Deirdre Macnab said Tuesday. "Their input was received and considered."

Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida said she wondered about the timing but she doesn't think Scott was trying to sweep the matter under the rug.

"I guess I just wrote it off to him doing it expeditiously because so many people were alarmed by it," Wraithmell said.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Florida environmental commission is a shell of its former self

Gov. Rick Scott last month reappointed Cari Roth to the state Environmental Regulation Commission. But if recent history is an indicator, she shouldn't find the position to be too time-consuming.

The ERC sets standards and rules for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Most issues that go before the commission deal with air pollution, water quality and waste management.

The commission used to meet almost monthly in the 1990s, according to observers. But the meetings have dropped off sharply in the past three years as have proposals for new rules and regulations.

Environmental groups criticized Scott for shutting down the state rule-making process with his order on Jan. 4 to freeze and review all new proposed rules. But the slowdown in ERC activity began before Scott took office as the Legislature has steadily trimmed the commission's authority.

The ERC met seven times in 2008 and three times in both 2009 and 2010. The ERC has not met this year and doesn't have a meeting scheduled for this month.

With law changes that require ratification by the Legislature of rules and regulations, the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation now is studying whether the ERC is needed. A staff report is due Sept. 1.

Former Rep. Dick Batchelor, D-Orlando, said he worked closely with Carol Browner when she was head of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) from 1991 to 1993. Browner left to become the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator but Batchelor remained commission chairman until 1997. And DER became the Department of Environmental Protection.

"We had similar agendas and we worked very closely together in the rulemaking process," Batchelor said. "That was absolutely, totally different than today when it doesn't seem the secretaries of DEP assert themselves in any rulemaking. And the ERC has become miniaturized in the rulemaking process."

The ERC meets as needed, said Jennifer Diaz, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. If there is a rule that needs a new standard, then staff brings it to the commission.

"The number of meetings conducted does not directly correlate to the amount of business conducted," Diaz said in an email. "Therefore, less frequent ERC meetings does not equate to less environmental protection."

Audubon of Florida's Charles Lee said the ERC now only ratifies rules proposed by DEP staff or by petition and can no longer propose its own rule changes.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago they (commission members) literally were the governing board of DER," Lee said. "The chairman of ERC at that point was probably just as powerful as the secretary of DER."

But Frank Matthews, an attorney with Hopping Green & Sams representing the Association of Florida Community Developers, said he doesn't look back on those years as being the good ol' days.

"The ERC perceived itself as a policy-setting body as opposed to a standards-setting body," Matthews said. "The reason they are less active is the Legislature clarified they are supposed to be responsive to direction and policy originating from the Legislature. They were not supposed to divine or create policy but to implement standards based on policy from the Legislature."

Batchelor was passed over by the Senate for confirmation in 1997 and left the ERC. Matthews and Batchelor describe differently what happened .

"Dick was a great guy an excellent legislator," Matthews said. "It was hard for him not to blur the roles" of being an ERC member versus being a legislator.

Batchelor, now a business and policy planning consultant in Orlando, said he was passed over because he was so outspoken.

"I was assaulted by Frank Matthews and sugar and agriculture and phosphate (industries) as being true pro-environmental," Batchelor said.

Now he says the commission, the department and the state's five water management district have become the handmaidens of those industries who want unfettered development.

The state's clash with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency over water quality standards, he said, is a good example of how the weakened role of the commission and DEP is affecting the public.

The EPA in 2009 agreed with environmental groups that the state's water quality standards were insufficient and that excess nitrogen and phosphorus had created algae blooms in waterways. The EPA has imposed new federal standards beginning in 2012 that utilities, agriculture and industry groups say will be difficult and expensive to meet.

Even though the ERC was meeting less prior to 2011 under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Batchelor says the commission and DEP have abdicated their roles. And Batchelor blames Scott, the new pro-jobs governor, for going further in "eviscerating" environmental protection policy.

"I think the public wants laws to protect the environment," Batchelor said. "I don't think they want the Legislature to abandon its role -- to surrender all of its influence on growth management and development to special interests."

"I think once the public (realizes), the pressure will come to bear. It's not going to be a short turnaround. It's going to take a couple of years."

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

Monday, June 20, 2011

Nation's largest land-buying program appears doomed by veto

With the stroke of a pen last month, Gov. Rick Scott turned Florida from a conservation land-buyer to a land seller.

Florida had the largest land-buying program in the nation with more than 2 million acres purchased since 1990. The Florida Forever program received $300 million a year until state revenues started slipping in 2009, when the Legislature appropriated nothing for the program for the first time since 1990.

Last year the Legislature found $15 million for the program. But the outcome for even that meager amount looked bleak this year until Sen. JD Alexander came up with a novel proposal -- that state could buy more land if it sold some of its existing property.

Alexander, the powerful chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, proposed allowing the state to spend up to $305 million for land if it could sell that much, which was highly unlikely. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection already had identified more than 20,000 acres that can be sold and has put several small parcels up for sale on the department's web site.

Environmental groups went along with the proposal, reminding legislators that the state Constitution allows land to be sold only if the Cabinet determines it is no longer needed for conservation purposes.

But none of that seemed to matter to Scott when he raised his veto pen and displayed it before a crowd at The Villages in Central Florida.

"The Florida Constitution gives me the authority to hold special interests accountable with the line item veto," Scott said. "Today I'm exercising that authority to remove $615 million ... in special interest spending projects from this budget."

That $615 million included $305 million for Florida Forever even though it was unlikely that anywhere near that much land could be sold in one year. So Scott killed the possibility of new funding for land acquisition while he directed that the money he vetoed go towards education.

In his veto message, the governor said the state can't afford to buy and manage more land -- echoing critics such as Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Farm Bureau. However, supporters point to polls that show overwhelming support for land purchases and studies that suggest parks, state forests and other public lands contribute jobs and spending for the economy.

While Scott has said he likes visiting parks to hike, he has never said anything in favor of new land purchases even while approving a few deals at Cabinet meetings with the cash previously appropriated by the Legislature.

Scott said any spending that is eliminated by his veto pen should go towards education. But House Speaker Dean Cannon said the money instead would go into state reserves.

That would seem to put the nation's largest land-buyer in the position of now being a land-seller. But some environmentalists, such as Audubon of Florida's Eric Draper, say that can't swallow that idea.

"Some land will get sold, some land will get surplussed, some parks will get developed," Draper said. "But I don't think the people of Florida are going to completely go along with that. Rick Scott is not a king. Florida is still a democracy. People still have a voice."

(Topsail Hill State Park photo copyrighted by James Valentine. Gov. Rick Scott photo from Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Florida growth agency "boogeyman" disappearing without debate

An employee enters the Department of Community Affairs headquarters where more than 20 workers were told last week they're being laid off.

With some state planners being handed their pink slips this week, the question arises over what really happened to the debate over the fate of Florida's growth management agency -- the Department of Community Affairs?

There was no debate, really. Perhaps because, as one prominent agency critic put it, DCA had been the "boogeyman" for discussing the growth management issue.

SB 2156, which has yet to be sent to the governor, abolishes the department by sending portions of it to other agencies. DCA's Division of Community Planning, which oversees local growth management decisions, will have its staff reduced by nearly half as it's transferred to a new Department of Economic Opportunity created by the Legislature.

But DCA has played such a pivotal role in growth management for more than 20 years that it's hard to believe there wasn't more discussion about the agency itself. SB 2156 is a budget conforming bill, so it wasn't heard in committee and it received only an up-or-down vote by both chambers without amendments.

Even before the start of the session, "I think it was more of a foregone conclusion" that DCA was gone, said Charlies Pattison, president of the 1000 Friends of Florida growth management advocacy group.

For years, developers and homebuilders had battled DCA over policy issues in the Legislature and over local projects that faced environmental opposition. Local governments were more than happy to have the state step in and say "no" to powerful local development and real estate interests even if the locals wanted to, which they usually didn't.

Last year, the House let it be known that it was no fan of DCA when it refused to vote on reauthorizing the agency under the "Sunset Review" process.

Then Rick Scott, as a Republican candidate for governor, declared DCA a "job killer" and vowed to get rid of it. As governor, he told that to the faces of DCA employees when he gathered them in the headquarters lobby during a visit in January.

"On the campaign trail," Scott told the employees, "all they wanted to complain about was how fast you all do permitting -- or growth management."

On May 10, Associated Industries of Florida CEO Barney Bishop told a business group in Tallahassee that DCA had simply been the focus of those who wanted get rid of burdensome regulations.

"DCA was that boogeyman for us," Bishop said. "So we essentially got rid of that."

The argument that DCA stifled development is baffling to some of the opponents and even some supporters of the House Bill 7207, the growth management reform bill. It substantially reduces the state's oversight of local land-use decisions while shifting the burden of proof to those who challenge local land use decisions.

Former DCA Secretary Tom Pelham has pointed out that from 2007 to 2010, the state approved 1.5 billion square feet of commercial development in addition to nearly 600,000 new housing units and nearly 1 million acres of land use changes.

Even so, Bishop blames Pelham for making DCA the problem -- apparently for stating that some projects didn't comply with state growth management laws because the need for even more development could not be demonstrated.

"Tom Pelham more than anybody else -- a great guy -- but he was just so much on the environmental side that the business community just loved to hate him," Bishop said.

The Florida League of Cities supports the growth management reforms passed by the Legislature, said Rebecca O'Hara, the group's director of legislative affairs. But she said the group cannot say it is happy to see DCA being abolished.

What killed jobs in Florida, O'Hara said, was not DCA, but the inability of homeowners to sell their houses and the inability of prospective home-buyers to get credit. And that became a national and global economic problem -- not a Florida problem, she said.

"To lay that at the feet of any single agency, that is a very broad generalization and I think it would be unfair," O'Hara said. "To say that, it overlooks all the very good things the agency has done over the years."

So was making DCA the boogeyman a ruse by business interests? Not completely, Bishop says, if it served its purpose of achieving growth management changes.

"It wasn't a complete ruse," he said. "But they (DCA officials) weren't guilty of everything they were charged with.

"Again, you have to put a name and a face to these kinds of issues in order to push that down the road. And that's what we did."

(Photos and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Session could have been worse but it was still bad, environmentalists say

The Florida legislative session went off track early Saturday, taking several bills with it that were supported by business and industry groups and opposed by environmentalists.

But environmentalists were not in a celebratory mood as the Legislature passed bills gutting state growth management and placing the burden of proof on those who file legal challenges against state permits.

"It was not as bad at the end as we were afraid it might be," Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said.

Audubon of Florida said the Legislature passed measures that were rejected as too extreme by Gov. Jeb Bush, who served from 1999 to 2007.

“The legislature rolled back protections, decades in the making, which were intended to ensure the water flowing into the Everglades, our lakes, rivers and streams is clean and safe for our children and families," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce hailed the session for its rollback on taxes and regulations, including growth management reform. The chamber said the legislative actions would produce jobs for the state.

The House and Senate approved a budget conforming bill that includes sweeping changes to the state's 25-year-old growth management system, largely removing state oversight of most local land-use decisions.

The $70-billion state budget includes nearly $30 million for Everglades restoration, down from $200 million a year prior to 2009. The Florida Forever land-buying program receives $305 million, but only from the sale of surplus land that is no longer needed for conservation.

The HB 7129 growth management bill was amended by the Senate and returned to the House where it died. But growth management also was contained in the HB 7207 budget conforming bill that passed both chambers and was headed to the governor.

Some Republicans and Democrats in the Senate complained about taking up substantial law changes in budget bills, which cannot be amended before they are voted on. The Republican leadership in the House rejected a Democratic rule challenge on the strategy.

"It's a very dangerous precedent to set when you have a budget conforming bill coming back as a conference report that is totally unrelated to the bill we passed," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West and House Democratic leader.

The push-back against conforming bills in the Senate led to a 30-6 vote that killed a bill to deregulate the interior design profession. That led to retaliation by the House and the breakdown in cooperation between the chambers. The House passed the budget and a tax relief bill, which the Senate also passed before adjourning the session at about 3:35 a.m. on Saturday.

HB 991, the streamlined permitting bill, died without action by the Senate. The Senate version of the bill, SB 1404, was never heard in a committee.

But a provision of HB 991 that raised the most concerns with environmentalists passed the House and Senate on Thursday as part of HB 993. That rulemaking bill is now headed to the governor.

A bill that environmental groups said would make it easier for farmers to destroy wetlands or cause flooding on neighboring property is heading to the governor.

Florida Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups said HB 421 is needed because of court rulings that eroded a 1984 law that says farms are not required to get water management district permits. The bill leaves it up to state agriculture officials to determine what are exempted farm activities.

The Legislature also considered repealing the septic tank inspection requirement that passed last year as the centerpiece of SB 550, the water quality bill. The Florida Department of Health estimates that 10 percent of the state's estimated 2.7 million septic tanks are failing.

But the House and Senate took different paths towards the repeal. HB 13 would have simply repealed the requirement while allowing local inspection programs to remain. SB 1698 would have repealed the requirement but required inspections in 14 counties with larger "first-magnitude" springs and would have allowed local programs only with some restrictions.

HB 13 passed the House 110-3 on April 15. But it died in the Senate Rules Committee. The Senate bill died on the special order calendar.

That could mean that the septic tank inspections will be required beginning July 1. But DOH probably would need to resume rulemaking and may need approval from Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature to proceed.

A once controversial fertilizer bill failed to pass -- HB 457 -- but its text was included in HB 7215, a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services bill.

HB 457 originally prohibited local governments from regulating fertilizer. But opposition faded after it was amended to allow existing local ordinances in place before July 1 to remain in effect. 

The House and Senate adopted SB 2142, a budget conforming bill that cuts $210 million, or about 30 percent of the property tax revenue from the state's water management districts. The Senate voted 38-1 and the House voted 83-34.

HB 613, which would have delayed a deadline for South Florida utilities to upgrade wastewater discharges into the Atlantic Ocean, also was never taken up by the Senate. The bill passed the House 93-18 on April 15. 

The bill would have delayed the 2018 deadline by five years for sewage plants in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to upgrade treatment. The Florida Coastal & Ocean Coalition and the Sierra Club opposed the extensions, which supporters said would save $4 billion alone for Miami-Dade County ratepayers.

A bill that would prohibit local governments from implementing federal water quality standards also died in Senate messages. HB 239 was a response to numeric nutrient criteria adopted in December by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Bills to encourage renewable energy bill allowing utilities to charge customers $375 million for renewable energy projects over five years died last week. That's the third straight year that a major renewable energy bill failed.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Final day of session: Energy dead but growth overhaul, septic bills very much alive

Growth management, fertilizer and septic tanks are some of the environmental issues awaiting action by the Legislature on Friday, its final scheduled day of the regular session.

Renewable energy, permitting and growth management were the big three issues heading into the session. There also was an outcry from some rural residents against last year's requirement that septic tanks be inspected every five years.

Gov. Rick Scott, in his 2011-12 budget request, proposed eliminating the Florida Department of Community, calling the agency a "job-killer" despite its approval of 1.5 billion square feet of new commercial and office space and nearly 600,000 housing units since 2007.

SB 1122 would remove most state oversight of growth management. Developers and industry groups support the overhaul while environmentalists say the support more modest changes.

The Senate on Thursday voted 30-9 to approve the bill. Then the Senate brought it back for reconsideration and delayed action after Sen. Nan Rich, the Senate Democratic leader, reminded Senate President Mike Haridopolos that she objected to holding the final vote.

The quick vote left some environmentalists immediately scratching their heads.

"That is a fundamental change to 25 years of growth management law," said Charles Pattison, president of 1000 Friends of Florida. "We are surprised nobody asked any questions about it."

The permitting issues have largely been resolved against environmentalists. They denounced the HB 991 permitting bill last week, then got a provision stripped that shifted the burden of proof to those who file legal challenges against state permits.

But on Thursday the House gave final approval to the HB 993 rulemaking bill that added the burden of proof provision. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested the shift, saying the process still would be open and transparent.

“We are disappointed that DEP lobbied to reduce citizens’ rights to challenge harmful permits," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "If the governor signs this bill, citizens faced with stopping bad environmental projects will lose an important legal right.”

Renewable energy legislation died last week for the third straight year.

SB 2078 and HB 7217 would have allowed utilities to charge customers $375 million for renewable energy projects over five years was opposed by some business groups as too costly. Scott raised concerns about utility rate increases.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and Senate president pro tem, said Wednesday that weak leadership caused the bills to fail.

"The reason no energy bills passed is because I feel the power companies took advantage of the new legislative chairs on both sides (House and Senate) who were not necessarily as strong and familiar with their issues as they should be," Bennett said. "Consequently they loaded up the energy bills so huge they would not pass."

"And they (utilities) don't want to do anything that might dilute their monopoly," he said. "They can expound all they want about renewable energy. The only way they want renewable energy is if they can control it."

A big question remaining on the final day was whether either septic tank bill would pass. HB 13 would simply repeal the inspection requirement while SB 1698 would repeal it while limiting the scope of local programs.

The Florida Association of Home Builders and Florida Onsite Wastewater Association supported SB 1698. Environmentalists were beginning to lean toward HB 13 instead because it would return to the status quo of allowing local inspection program without restrictions from the state.

Another bill still in play is HB 613, which would ease restrictions on wastewater utilities that dump treated sewage into the ocean. Environmental groups oppose the bill because it would delay required wastewater plant upgrades.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Bennett says he now wants to shift burden of proof to challengers

A provision that was stripped out of a House permit streamlining bill last week after environmentalists denounced it was back Wednesday as a proposed amendment to a Senate rulemaking bill.

The amendment to SB 1382 would place the burden of proof on those who challenge state environmental permits. The amendment by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, mirrors a provision that was taken out of HB 991 last week before it passed the House by a 95-16 vote without debate.

"It (the amendment) undoes all the good work we did last week on the (House) bill," said Mary Jean Yon, a lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.

Environmentalists say that hiring an attorney and expert witnesses to file a legal challenge is difficult enough now without increasing the legal burden. But Bennett said Wednesday he doesn't think it's all that difficult.

"I think if somebody is going to challenge you, affect your economic life, the burden of proof should be on them that there really truly was a grounds for whatever their particular argument is," he said.

The senator also said he is backing a stricter burden of proof requirement for his sweeping growth management bill, SB 1122. Both the growth bill and the SB 1382 rulemaking bill are on the Senate special order calendar for Wednesday.

Bennett said Monday he would stick with the position in his growth management bill that places the burden of proof on local governments when their decisions are challenged.

Budget negotiators agreed last week to stick the growth management legislation in a budget conforming bill with the stricter burden of proof requirement on challengers as contained in the House bill. "That's out," Bennett said Monday.

But he said Wednesday the bill taken up by the Senate will be identical to the conforming bill with the House position.

"Since [Monday], a lot of things have happened," Bennett said.

Asked what had happened, he said, "Negotiations -- trying to get a bill out of here that everybody agrees would create the most amount of jobs, and at the same time have a certain responsibility to protect as much of Florida as possible."

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Permitting bill sails through House with amendments

Joking that he had taken out "the nasty stuff" opposed by environmentalists, Rep. Jimmy Patronis said Friday his environmental permitting bill still is good for Florida's businesses.

The House quickly amended HB 991 on Friday and gave it final approval without questions or debate.

The bill would streamline the state permitting process to reduce lawsuits and delays, supporters said. Developers and industry groups supported the bill, while environmentalists on Thursday denounced it as one of the worst they had seen.

After eight hours of prolonged questioning on numerous other bills Friday, the Republican-controlled House kicked into warp speed, adopted a Democratic amendment that removed a major concern, and passed the bill 95-16 -- with hardly a peep from Democrats.

"It's a major, major, major bill that passed in probably 15 to 30 seconds," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

He described the hurried final vote as "bizarre," but Democrats could have slowed down the process by asking questions or debating and they didn't. Pafford said House members were worried their own bills wouldn't get passed if they raised questions.

Friday was the last day to act on HB 991 and other bills that were on the special order calendar, House Speaker Dean Cannon said. He placed the bill on the calendar Wednesday, bypassing the two remaining committee stops.

"We were trying to get lots of bills done," said Cannon, R-Winter Park. "We did that for Democrat and House [Republican] bills, some in less than 60 seconds."

Pafford offered an amendment that removed language that opponents said shifted the legal burden of proof from permit applicants to those who file legal challenges.

Patronis, R-Panama City, agreed to the amendment after meeting Friday with environmentalists, said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.

"We're still not happy with the bill but the Pafford amendment takes out the most offensive part of the bill," Draper said.

The Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties also had raised concerns about the bill. Patronis also offered other amendments including one to remove a prohibition on local rock mining regulations.

"Ask me nice questions because I took out all the nasty stuff," Patronis told the Florida Tribune.

He said the bill still is good for Florida because it reduces the time period for agencies to respond to permit applications and provides predictability for applicants. The bill also extends the Sept. 30 contamination cleanup deadline for 25 gas station owners to Dec. 31, 2012.

"Representative Patronis worked his [butt] off on the bill," said Scott Dudley, associate director of legislative affairs with the Florida League of Cities. "He has been a very fair arbiter of all the issues."

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Permitting bill includes "sneak attack" on local rock mining regs

In a move described as a "sneak attack" by one environmental opponent, a House bill that supporters say would streamline the state permitting process was amended Thursday to prevent local governments from regulating rock mining.

HB 991 by Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, was amended by the House Economic Affairs Committee.

Business groups long have argued that the mines should be exempt from local regulations because the activity is regulated by the state and that aggregate is vital to industry. But cities, counties and environmental groups have argued that mining can disrupt neighborhoods and roads and that local regulation is needed to protect wetlands and water quality.

The House Economic Affairs Committee adopted a 71-page strike-all amendment requested by Patronis that included the new aggregate rock mining preemption. The bill has evolved through a series of weekly meetings with supporters and opponents.

Stephen James, legislative staff attorney for the Florida Association of Counties, thanked Patronis for being willing to make changes in the bill. But he said the mining preemption "was never discussed and never brought up."

"This is the first we are seeing of it this morning," he said.

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida called the new part of the bill bad policy that represents "a sneak attack."

"It is so offensive to the people who live in the communities where these rock mines are located," Draper said. "Often time in rural areas these mines clearly destroy the communities they go into."

Patronis said local land use regulations still would apply to the mines. "I had some sympathy with what various folks are dealing with in the [local environmental] permitting process," he said.

Groups supporting the bill include the Florida Engineering Society, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida and the Wetlands Mitigation Banking Alliance.

"We've worked on this [rock mining] many years," said Keyna Cory, senior lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida.

Groups that continued to raise concerns included the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Stormwater Association, the Florida Department of Transportation, Sierra Club Florida and Audubon of Florida.

The Florida Stormwater Association is concerned that the bill requires counties to go through the expensive process of seeking state approval for local environmental permitting programs.

Sierra Club and Audubon of Florida representatives said the bill unfairly shifts the burden of proof to challengers of permits rather than the permit applicant.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said shifting the burden to challengers would have a chilling effect on citizen involvement. She offered an amendment to maintain the status quo but it was defeated on a voice vote.

The bill passed 17-0. The bill still has two committee stops. The Senate version of the bill, SB 1404, has not been heard in a committee.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Florida environmentalists uneasy as legislative session enters second half

With the Legislative session more than half over, some environmentalists are saying the session already has been bad enough. But at least one veteran environmental lobbyist says the worst could be yet to come.

The Legislature is showing little interest in providing new money for the Florida Forever land-buying program while at the same time it moves to eliminate the Florida Department of Community Affairs, the state's land planning agency.

Other bills that are moving through committees would prevent local governments from regulating fertilizer use or would exempt farmers from state permitting requirements. One bright spot for environmentalists last year, a bill to require septic tank inspection statewide, almost certainly will be repealed.

"This is the worst legislative session in memory for the environment," said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club.

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida says some bad bills have been improved, like HB 239. The bill, before it was substantially rewritten last week, had prohibited state and local agencies from enforcing new federal water quality standards that face opposition from industry and agriculture groups and utilities.

Some environmentalists don't like that the new bill now creates new classifications for waterways that would relax cleanup standards.

But concerns remain about several other bills including HB 991, an evolving piece of legislation that would make it easier for developers to get environmental permits.

That bill is scheduled to be heard April 14 by the House Economic Affairs Committee. And Draper said it could easily pick up amendments along the way with bad proposals that haven't been considered or discussed.

"I don't want to make a conclusion mid-session," Draper said last week. "You don't know what else is coming. … We don't know what is in the background right now."

Environmental groups also are battling proposals to overhaul Florida's landmark 1985 growth management law, severely reducing the state's oversight over local land-use decisions.

1000 Friends of Florida says it supports streamlining growth management but the group says the House and Senate would go too far by eliminating DCA and making it too difficult for residents to win legal challenges against local growth decisions.

Since 2007, DCA has approved 1.5 billion square feet of new commercial and office space and nearly 600,000 housing units. Yet Gov. Rick Scott has called the agency a "job-killer" and proposed its elimination.

And Senate President Mike Haridopolos shows no sign of wanting to slow the growth management reforms that are moving through his chamber in the form of Senate Bill 1122.

He said DCA has been a "disaster" in recent years and the previous secretary was "not moving projects along." He said the growth reforms will help reduce red tape while encouraging future "smart" growth.

"I'm sure we'll continue to negotiate but there may be some groups you cannot satisfy," Haridopolos said.

A hearing on SB 1122 is scheduled for Thursday by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation. Sen. Mike Bennett, chairman of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs and the bill's sponsor, said April 12 he is not inclined to seek changes in the legislation for environmentalists.

Jackalone said the moves against the environment on several fronts have been "disconcerting" -- but then he said that term is probably too weak to describe the session.

"I would say that it represents an abandonment of Florida's tradition of protecting and preserving the environment," Jackalone said.

April 13, 2011 UPDATE:
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, said he disagrees with media reports that cast the legislative session in a negative light on environmental issues:

"I read articles and I get the opinion some time maybe the media looks at us and thinks it's a lost cause for the environment this year -- everybody is flushing, cutting or killing," Dean said. "I haven't taken that attitude at all.

"I think just the opposite," he said. "I have wanted to work on issues and let everybody have a piece of the action, let everybody come in and discuss it and work with us. If they got a better idea, put some amendments in.

"A good process is what we are here for. Not one person has all the answers."

(Photos and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Friday, April 8, 2011

EPA agrees to study new water standards in Florida

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to an independent review of federal water quality standards for Florida that were adopted last fall.

The EPA says nitrogen and phosphorus have caused algae in Florida waterways and toxic red tides along the coast. The federal numeric nutrient criteria replaces a state narrative standard that environmentalists said was too vague to be enforced.

But agriculture, industry groups and utilities along with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Attorney General Pam Bondi have sued to block the new standards.

EPA has estimated the cost of complying with the rule at $135 million to $206 million. But the Cardno Entrix consulting firm estimated the maximum costs as ranging from $3 billion to $8 billion. The firm was hired by the Florida Water Quality Coalition, which consists of agriculture and business groups and utilities.

Cardno Entrix estimates vary depending on whether the standard is applied at the end of a plant's pollution pipe or is applied overall to waterways receiving pollution.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a letter to Sen. Bill Nelson that her agency is working with the National Academy of Sciences to conduct the review. "Because the economic impact of the rule is dominating the public discussion in Florida, I agree with you, senator, that an independent cost review of EPA's economic analysis should be performed.

To download the EPA letter, click here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Commission faces heat for considering increase in redfish catch

A proposal by state fisheries managers to increase the daily recreational catch for red drum in North Florida recalls the "redfish wars" of the late 1980s, according to a veteran recreational fishing activist.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday will consider raising the limit for red drum from one to two in North Florida. The commission meets in Havana at the Pat Thomas Law Enforcement Center, 215 Academy Drive, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

Red drum, more commonly known as redfish, are a popular sport fish that were severely overfished in the 1980s. Chef Paul Prudhomme of New Orleans at that time popularized blackened redfish as a dish.

The Cabinet in 1989 prohibited the commercial harvest of red drum following meetings packed with recreational and commercial fishing groups wearing rival colors, said Ted Forsgren, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Florida.

"The governor and Cabinet voted 6-1 (to end commercial fishing)," Forsgren said. "That is what started the good redfish fishery we have today. We have put a lot into it to protecting the fishery."

In 2007, the FWCC established a goal of having at least 40 percent of red drum surviving through age 4 to become spawning adults. The goal has been met in Northwest Florida, the agency said, but fish populations have fallen short at times in South Florida, according to the agency.

With fishing for grouper and snapper have been cut back, "We just have some commissioners who are really looking to try to give some fish back to anglers," FWCC spokesman Lee Schlesinger said.

But Forsgren said groups including CCA-Florida, the Florida Guides Association, International Game Fish Association, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Federation Fly Fishers support maintaining the existing limit of one fish per day statewide for recreational anglers.

CCA Florida says in written comments that increasing the daily catch in North Florida could further reduce the number of fish in South Florida. That could cause more severe fishing restrictions in South Florida, CCA says.

Much of the agency staff wasn't around more than 20 years ago when the redfish wars were fought, Forsgren said. Red fish have since become a premier inshore fishery, he said, responsible for boosting the state's economy and creating jobs.

"It's a huge success -- (for) all those hundreds of people who worked on it during the early days during the redfish wars," Forsgren said. "Everyone appreciates what they have, that there is a large abundance of redfish.

"You can go out and catch a whole bunch of them and keep one. It's wonderful. Why they would want to change it and mess it up, we don't understand."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Wakulla Springs lodge could close under proposed versions of state budget

The historic lodge at Wakulla Springs State Park could eventually close under proposed House and Senate versions of the 2011-12 state budget.

Both versions of the budget call for turning concessions at five state parks over to private companies to operate. Wakulla Springs State Park supporters are concerned that the 27-bed lodge built in 1937 could close if no one bids on operating it.

The lodge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built by powerful businessman Edward Ball, who managed the vast duPont family fortune and controlled The St. Joe Co.

Read more at the Florida Tribune:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Author says "water ethic" needed in Florida's future

Florida doesn't need another white paper offering water policy recommendations to protect future water supplies. What the state finally needs is a "water ethic."

That's the case made in a recent report by the Collins Center for Public Policy called "Our Water, Our Florida: A Water Ethic for Florida" by Cynthia Barnett. She is an associate editor of Florida Trend magazine and author of "Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S."

Barnett argues that Florida water history can be boiled down to two big mistakes: We took too much from its natural systems, then relied on big infrastructure fixes (especially groundwater pumping). And she says a new approach is needed in the future to deal with an increasing population and limited water supplies.

"Florida is at a crossroads. We could keep to the current road of extracting too much, and using too much, which has led to both scarcity and conflict," she writes. "Or, we could take a new path to a statewide water ethic. Unlike some other states, our water wealth, along with technological breakthroughs lining up with fresh political leadership and keen new interest in water sustainability among residents and businesses, give us an unprecedented opportunity to do so."

The paper is part of a Collins Center series called "Our Florida, Our Future." The goal of the five-year program is to touch millions of Floridians to encourage conversations about the important issues facing the state, said Steve Seibert, the Collins Center's senior vice president and director of strategic visioning.

The purpose is not to tell this year's Legislature what it should do, said Seibert, who served as secretary of the Florida Department of Community Affairs from 2000 to 2004 under then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

This year, the House has established a Select Committee on Water Policy to consider water issues, including the touchy "local sources" first policy that discourages water pipelines from water-rich rural areas to growing cities. Several representatives of industry, agriculture and environmental groups have encouraged the House committee to focus on conservation while there also has been a push to fund reservoirs and similar water supply projects.

Seibert said the purpose of the "water ethic" report is not to wade into those types of issues but instead point out the value of water and different ways to address its role in the future.

"I hope a lot of people pick that up and say, 'Wow, this really is a precious resource. Other people are handling this in a really interesting way. This is what we ought to be talking about,' " Seibert said.

"Those are the kinds of conversations we would like to have," he said.

To learn more about "Our Water, Our Future" and to download a copy, go to the Collins Center web site.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Senate budget chief wants land sales to pay for new purchases

The Senate's budget chief says selling state land could help the Florida Forever land-buying program survive these lean budget times.

A proposed Senate version of the 2011-12 state budget includes $308 million in spending authority for the program. But the money would have to come from the sale of land the state now owns.

Florida has purchased more than 2 million acres since 1990 under Florida Forever and its predecessor land-buying program. The program received $300 million a year from 1990 to 2008, but has received only $15 million combined over the past two years. Gov. Rick Scott in his 2011-12 budget recommendation offered nothing for the program.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales and the Senate budget chief, said Tuesday he proposed allowing the state to buy more land with land sales because he can't find money in the budget for Florida Forever. He said there are critical pieces of land the state needs to buy.

"It's an idea," he said. "I hear some don't like it. But it's the best I could do to give us the ability to consider some important potential purchases."

Alexander said he had no list of parcels that should be sold. But he said some land could be leased or sold with protective conservation easements.

Some Florida Forever supporters say the state should be buying more land now when land prices are low and good deals are available rather than selling it. Audubon of Florida's Julie Wraithmell said the coalition of groups supporting the program hasn't taken a position on the Senate budget proposal.

She pointed out that the state Constitution allows the sale of land if the Cabinet determines it is no longer needed for conservation. She said the proposal raises more questions than it answers.

"I envision a scenario in which somebody sold a tract of land to the state when it [the price] was high," Wraithmell said. "Now could they buy it back at a lower price?"

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Management Services are reviewing state-owned lands to determine what land can be sold as surplus as required under SB 1516 in 2010.

An initial review identified 24,555 acres for possible sale, Mike Long, deputy director of DEP's Division of State Lands, told the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee on March 17. He said almost none of the land had been purchased for conservation.

Money from the sale of conservation lands must be used to buy other conservation lands to preserve the state's bond rating, Long said.

Alexander said he has no list in mind of lands that could be sold, and that any sale should follow the state process.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla and chairman of the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, cautioned that the spending authority in the Senate budget proposal doesn't yet provide the money for buying land.

"Until we got the money in the hand, we don't have the money," Hays said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Developers would determine "need" under proposed growth law rewrite

Empty cul-de-sacs cover an area of Rotunda West in Charlotte County. See more of "Human Landscapes in SW Florida" at the Boston Globe web site.

During a recent Cabinet meeting, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater summed up an important debate over growth management policy by relating it to the rapidly expanding Five Guys hamburger chain.

Some Bay County residents had asked the Cabinet to deny a request for a proposed 174-slip commercial marina on Callaway Bayou. The residents said the marina wasn't needed because there were other vacant marinas in the area. They predicted the project would fail.

Atwater eventually cast the only vote against the project, which was approved by the Cabinet 3-1. But Atwater dismissed the idea that the marina should be rejected because it wasn't needed.

"I'm not moved by the argument of economic viability," Atwater said. "If somebody had asked me a few years ago if we need another hamburger joint in America I would have said, 'You're kidding.' But I hadn't tasted Five Guys hamburgers."

The House earlier this month unveiled a proposal to drastically reduce state oversight of local growth management. The bill would prohibit the state from denying a local growth plan change because it is no longer needed, which has been a key issue in growth management decisions in recent years.

Gov. Rick Scott Scott repeatedly has called the Florida Department of Community Affairs a "job-killer." However, since 2007, DCA has approved 1.5 billion square feet of new commercial and office space and nearly 600,000 housing units.

Even so, DCA has drawn fire from developers and local governments in recent years for denying some projects that DCA said they were not needed. In 2009, DCA Secretary Tom Pelham listed five counties that had enough residential growth approved to last more than 100 years.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne and chairman of the House Community & Military Affairs Subcommittee, said the issue of need has been abused by the state.

Workman says HB 7129, the growth committee bill passed by his committee last week, would ban the state from rejecting a project because it isn't needed. Indeed, the bill would require cities and counties instead to set aside more land for development based on University of Florida population projections.

He said developers should have more say in whether a project is needed and that it's not Tallahassee's place to tell them that a project isn't needed -- as long as there are environmental controls in place. Cities and counties, he said, can decide whether a project would create urban blight.

"They (developers) are saying, 'If I'm going to put my capital into the development, that is all the need you need,' " he said. "If the development fails what difference does it make to the state?"

Sierra Club Florida lobbyist David Cullen said developers are using the economic crisis to turn growth management "upside down." The bill, he said, will radically change planning in Florida if it becomes law.

"Sooner or later the economy will pick up and people will want to buy houses," Cullen said. "And there will be nothing standing in the way of really bad land use."

Determining need for development is a lynchpin issue in growth management planning, said Tim Chapin, chairman of Florida State University's Department of Urban and Regional Planning.

Developers are right, Chapin said, in arguing that DCA's use of need to deny projects has killed good, compact, mixed-use developments that planners say are needed to reduce urban sprawl.

But he also said that allowing development to go anywhere will lead to more low-density land use patterns that increase the cost of providing government services.

"My concern is the legislature will overcorrect," Chapin said. "If they throw need (determination) out in its entirety, that is akin to getting rid of state oversight entirely."

"I would be the first to say the state system needs refinement," he said. "But to say we entirely don't need to consider need, that is the wrong path in the state."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Coley targets another section of last year's water quality bill

Rep. Marti Coley has filed another bill to repeal a section of the SB 550 the water quality bill that passed the Legislature in 2010.

SB 550 included a requirement that septic tanks statewide to be inspected every five years and it banned the spreading of septic tank waste on land in 2016.

The Legislature in November voted to delay the septic tank inspection requirement after hearing from rural residents and some Tea Party members around the state who are opposed.

Coley's HB 13 would repeal the inspection requirement. That bill has passed three committees and is now up for second reading on the House calendar.

This week, Coley has filed HB 1479, which would repeal the ban in 2016 on spreading septic tank waste on land.

The Republican from Marianna said the practice already is regulated by the Florida Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection. She said the waste is treated and used as a fertilizer and that banning the practice will raise costs for septic tank maintenance firms.

"If it has been permitted by DEP and DOH as a safe practice, then why are we telling them they can't (spread it)?" Coley said.

Environmentalists say septic tank waste is high in phosphorus and nitrogen, along with other possible chemicals and pharmaceutical drugs.

"Unbelieveable," Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida, said in response to Coley's HB 1479. "The one good thing that was left (in SB 550) -- unbelievable."

And former Sen. Lee Constantine pointed out that in addition to the ban in 2016, his SB 550 also required DOH to conduct a study to determine alternatives for dealing with the waste. He said the ban was needed to force the department to take action.

"Unfortunately political expediency is the byword for this year's Legislature," he said. " 'Let's put off the problem. Let's let somebody else pay for that problem. Let's get individuals who don't know what the problem is out of our faces.' "

Keith Burney, co-owner of Burney's Septic Tank Service Inc. in St. Johns County, says his trucks would have to drive 100 miles round-trip to take the waste to a sewage treatment plant, raising the cost of an average $200 septic tank pump-out.

He said he and other family members live on a farm where the septic tank waste is spread on crops. He said the soil and drinking water wells have been tested for heavy metals and other contaminants and were found to be safe.

"If we live here on the property and drink the well water and aren't growing three heads, I would think that would be proof enough," he said.

Coley said if environmentalists want to provide information that shows the septic tank waste is harmful, she will consider it.

"The information I have been given is (that) it has been treated and it is safe," she said. "I don't want to destroy our water quality. That's not what I am about."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)