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 .)