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 .)