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 .)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Some biomass energy projects stall as others remain viable

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables' proposed plant in Gainesville

Officials in the biomass energy industry say regulatory uncertainties continue to affect the development of new projects in Florida.

As state officials continue to promote biomass as a source of energy that will create jobs in Florida, some projects remain in limbo while company officials say others remain viable. A company proposing to build a biomass gas electric plant in Hamilton County says it likely will allow its permit to lapse later this year because of poor market conditions.

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam met with Highlands County farmers who will grow crops for two proposed ethanol projects in the region.

“Florida has a unique opportunity to become a leader in the development and production of alternative energy, especially biomass," Putnam said in a statement. "By investing in higher education, research and grants, the [agriculture] department can enable Florida farmers, scientists and academics to explore the state’s options for energy production.”

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has approved permits for eight biomass energy projects in the last two years.

Adage said this week it expects to allow its DEP construction permit to lapse later this year for its 55-megawatt plant in Hamilton County. The company, which also ended development of a project in Washington state, blamed poor market conditions for renewable energy in Florida for halting the Hamilton County plant. A company spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Elsewhere, Apalachicola Riverkeeper environmental group wrote a letter on March 11 raising concerns about air pollution and water use by the new proposed biomass electric plant in Gulf County. An application for Northwest Florida Renewable Energy LLC was submitted in August 2009 and withdrawn in April 2010 before being submitted by a new parent company two months ago.

Other projects remain in the works.

The St. Lucie County Renewable Energy Project, which will convert 600 tons of solid waste and tires into gas to produce electricity, plans to break ground later this year. Geoplasma St. Lucie LLC, a division of Jacoby Energy, still has a siting permit pending, said Robert Martin, senior engineer with Jacoby Energy.

And American Renewables has settled three legal challenges to its proposed 100-megawatt woody biomass power plant in Gainesville. The company still is working on financing for the project but hopes to complete construction in 2013.

Low natural gas prices and lack of action by Congress and the state to encourage renewable energy use are creating mixed messages, said Josh Levine, director of project development for American Renewables.

"You are going to end up seeing overdevelopment of natural gas resources and a utility infrastructure that is highly suspect to supply variations and price volatility," Levine said.

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

Walton County bill raises statewide concerns for sea turtles

Some environmentalists are asking the Legislature to take a closer look at a local bill for Walton County that could allow sea walls to remain in place without state permits.

Following extensive beach erosion caused by Hurricane Dennis in 2005, Walton County authorized the construction of between 250 and 275 sea walls along 26 miles of beach, according to the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Sea walls can block sea turtles, which are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act, from nesting in sand dunes along beaches.

HB 1311 by Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, would exempt Walton County from having to get permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for those sea walls. The bill does not exclude property owners from requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act which could require additional permits, according to a House staff analysis. The bill was passed Tuesday by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee without discussion or debate.

Walton County officials say they're concerned that allowing the sea walls to remain would harm the character of the county's beaches and sand dunes. The county says permits should be required to determine which sea walls should remain in place.

Walton County Commission Chairman Larry D. Jones wrote a letter in January raising concerns about draft language for the local bill. Walton County public information officer Ken Little said Monday that the letter still reflects the county's position. Jones could not be reached for comment.

Gary Appelson, policy director for the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, said legislators should allow the regulatory process to work rather than giving a "free pass" to those who improperly located or constructed sea walls.

"We have long been concerned some of these walls will negatively impact the beach dune system as well as sea turtle nesting habitat," Appelson said.

Neither Coley nor Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, could be reached for comment. The Northwest Florida Daily News reported in January that the county's legislative delegation had voted to file the bill and that Gaetz had defended the measure as a "matter of simple justice."

Gaetz said Walton County commissioners are looking to use the permitting issue to create a “new revenue source” that can be collected "almost at sword's point."

“I think that the County Commission looks on these folks as a cash cow,” he said.

(Photo courtesy of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Friday, March 18, 2011

State may have nearly 25,000 acres it doesn't need

An initial review of state-owned lands has identified more than 24,000 acres that possibly could be exchanged or sold, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Some legislators say the state has too much land and should sell some of it to generate revenue, raising concerns among environmentalists. But almost none of the 24,555 acres identified for possible sale was purchased for environmental conservation, Mike Long, deputy director of DEP's Division of State Lands, said Tuesday.

The Legislature in 2010 passed SB 1516, directing DEP to develop an inventory of all public lands and state-owned facilities. Some legislators last year expressed frustration with the Department of Management of Services for not being able to provide a list of state office buildings.

Read more at the Florida Tribune.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Representatives scold DEP for voicing concerns on bill

Bills that would streamline construction permitting and prohibit the state from enforcing federal water quality standards were passed out of a committee on Tuesday despite Florida Department of Environmental Protection concerns.

HB 239 by Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, was filed in response to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency adopting specific limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways. Industry groups say the limits will be costly to industries and utilities and are over-reaching.

At a meeting of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, Jerry Brooks, director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, raised concerns that the bill would cause businesses to be required to get permits from the EPA rather than DEP. He also said the bill directs DEP to set nutrient limits for each waterway across the state, a process that he said could take 15 or 20 years.

Read more at the Florida Tribune:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Senators say septic tank inspections still needed

Several senators on a committee Thursday objected to a proposed bill that would repeal a statewide septic tank inspection requirement.

Last year's lawmakers mandated inspections every five years but it was met with an outcry from rural homeowners. The bill's supporters said the inspections of the state's estimated 2.7 million septic tanks were needed to protect springs and water quality.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation, is sponsoring two bills, SB 130 and SB 1698, to repeal the inspection requirement, which Dean says is a one-size-fits-all mandate. His draft bill language would allow counties to create local inspection programs.

But Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said the proposal would undo five years of work on springs legislation that led to the passage of last year's law.

"Just to start right off by saying we are going to repeal everything, I think we are taking some major steps backwards," Jones said.

Read more at the Florida Tribune:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Governor skips Florida Forever rally, visits with Tea Party

Gov. Rick Scott skipped a rally for the Florida Forever conservation land-buying program but attended a nearby "Tea Party" rally on the opening day of the legislative session.

Florida Forever was the largest land-buying program in the nation from 1990 to 2008, when funding was reduced. Scott offered no money for the program in his 2010-11 budget recommendation.

Scott told the Tea Party on the east side of the historic Capitol, "You are changing the country," as he promised less state government and lower taxes. (Watch video here.) Along with Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection also was absent from the Florida Forever rally on the west side of the historic Capitol.

"How many events are happening around the Capitol today?" said Brian Burgess, communications director for the governor, when asked why the governor did not attend. "My point in asking is to point out that there are numerous events the governor didn't speak at today."

As for why DEP wasn't there to promote the land-buying program it now administers, spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said: "On the opening day of session, it was decided staff resources were best utilized elsewhere."

Democratic legislators also were noticeably absent from the Florida Forever rally. Andy McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter, pointed out that the House Democratic Caucus had rescheduled a meeting to 12:15 p.m., which was during the rally.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, was the only legislator or Cabinet member to attend. She said the land-buying was critical to maintaining tourism-related jobs.

Scott's absence on Tuesday and his budget recommendation to not fund Florida Forever represent a challenge for program supporters, McLeod said.

"It says we have work to do to make the case for the recreational and emotional importance of public lands but also critically making the economic case," McLeod said. He also said that holding the rally on the opening day of the legislative session increased its visibility but put it on conflict with other rallies and ceremonial events.

Speakers at the rally pointed to the economic and health benefits of public land ownership. The program pays for farm preservation, city parks and seafood "working waterfronts" as well as buying land for state forests, state parks and wildlife management areas.

"This really is an investment in the future of Florida's economy," said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida. "Businesses come to Florida -- their workers come to Florida -- because of the quality of life. We are investing in protecting that."

(Top photo is a YouTube image. Bottom photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission which can be obtained at .)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Environmental groups digging in for tough legislative session

Environmental groups, which have become accustomed to playing defense in the Legislature for many years, are digging in for what could be an even tougher fight this year. The legislative session starts on Tuesday, March 8.

There are bills filed to streamline environmental permitting, repeal a statewide septic tank inspection requirement and prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer.

"You've got some people who just don't understand our environmental policies, don't care and have vowed to rewrite the laws," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "We have to keep that from happening."

Gov. Rick Scott drew applause during his inauguration speech when he described regulations as being part of the "axis of unemployment" -- a reference to former President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech.

But which regulations does Scott believe are hurting the economy and which do he feel are necessary to protect health and the environment?

There have been a few glimpses of what fewer regulations may mean for Republican legislators. For example, there are bills to repeal last year's SB 550 requirement that septic tanks be inspected statewide every five years. That was one of the few environmental victories last year.

In his budget proposal, Scott has recommended eliminating the Florida Department of Community Affairs. He would reduce the number of planners from 61 to 10 and move them to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He also wants to move DEP's Division of State Lands to the Department of Management Services, which manages office buildings.

HB 457 would prohibit local governments from regulating fertilizer use in response to Pinellas County adopting a landmark ban on its use during the rainy season. Although a similar bill died in the Senate last year, the renewed Republican war on regulations could give it the extra push it needs this year.

Likewise, Rep. Steve Crisafulli, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, says he wants to get rid of duplicative water regulations that hinder agriculture and businesses. Rep. Trudi Williams R-Fort Myers and chairman of the House Select Committee on Water Policy, says her panel will take on "rogue" water management districts.

Funding for the Florida Forever conservation land buying program and Everglades restoration remains a priority among environmental groups and the Florida Association of Counties. In his 2011-12 budget recommendations, Scott included $17 million for the Everglades and nothing for Florida Forever.

"As you know the focus is all on jobs," Scott told reporters. "It's just a focus on priorities right now."

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Williams also have filed bills that would prevent the state from implementing proposed new federal water quality standards.

The Florida Storm Water Association, which has sued to block the new federal standards, had been concerned that the bills would go too far in preventing local governments from complying with the federal rules. But the association's Kurt Spitzer said Monday that a proposed amendment would fix the problem in the bills.

"We don't want to be put in between a rock and hard place where the state says you can't do this and EPA says you can't do this or you are fined $25,000 a day," Spitzer said.

(Photo of the Big Bend coast copyrighted by James Valentine, used with permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Industry group challenges Everglades Foundation study

One of the state's largest business groups is disputing an Everglades Foundation study in October that said the economic benefits of Everglades restoration would be at least $46.5 billion compared to the $11.5 billion cost of restoration work.

Associated Industries of Florida on Wednesday released what it said were two independent peer review studies that it said debunked the Everglades Foundation study. AIF said its scientists determined that the Everglades Foundation study "grossly over-stated" the economic benefits of restoration and that the actual benefits won't exceed the cost.

“None of that stuff was true -- not even close to it,” Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, told the Florida Tribune.

Read more at The Florida Tribune.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Opponents of growth ballot measure take new aim at Florida enviro groups

The group that led the opposition to the "Hometown Democracy" Amendment 4 last November said Tuesday that environmental groups continue to "wage a campaign of unchecked misinformation."

Amendment 4, which was voted down by 67 percent of voters, would have required local voter approval of changes to comprehensive land use plans. Business groups, cities and counties opposed the measure, which was supported by Sierra Club Florida and Florida Hometown Democracy Inc.

Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy Inc. spent more than $11 million to defeat the amendment with donations from the Florida Chamber of Commerce along with real estate and home-building groups. The Citizens group announced Tuesday it is re-launching its identity as to fight unnamed groups who it says are opposing Florida's free market economy.

"It is time they be held accountable," Executive Director Ryan Houck said in a YouTube video. But a Sierra Club representative responded that the campaign theme is "absurd."

The Citizens group's new website states that it will target "flashpoints" including federal water quality standards known as numeric nutrient criteria, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and litigation by environmental groups.

Sierra Club Florida also was among the groups that filed the federal lawsuit that led the EPA to issue the water quality standards. Houck said the Sierra Club is one group that the campaign will be targeting but added, "We're not picking issues based on the groups."

"We are assessing threats to the free market and engaging on behalf of the business community and our coalition," Houck said. "Where we see the free market under assault we expect to be involved."

Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club, said he finds it funny that Houck's group is trying to link Amendment 4 and the federal water quality standards, which Jackalone said are very different issues. Jackalone also said Florida needs clean beaches and waterways to maintain its economy by attracting retirees and maintaining its quality of life.

"They [] are saying that anything that is environmental protection is anti-business," Jackalone said. "All those people employed in cleaning up the environment and those livelihoods that depend on a clean environment would dispute that."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)