Both chambers of the Florida Legislature are trying to push through reforms to the way the state regulates the environment. Some call the proposals an affront to local sovereignty, while others call the move common sense. But increasing differences between the Senate and House versions of the measure are leading some to question whether it has a chance of passing this session.
Wakulla County Commissioner Howard Kessler sits in his car along a dirt road as it begins to rain. The street he’s on acts as a de facto dividing line between buildable property and land prohibited from being developed because of the county’s wetland-protection ordinance. The ordinance creates an extra layer of protection from development around wetlands. Kessler is at odds with colleagues on the board, who call the ordinance duplicative and burdensome. Wakulla Commissioner Randy Merritt says it also violates individual property rights.
“You cannot build your house without getting any closer than 35 feet to those wetlands, you know, without violating the wetlands. But you just can’t technically build the house without getting within 35 feet, you just can’t build a house. So, it makes your property useless,” Merritt says.
In many ways, the small bedroom community serves as a microcosm of a statewide fight going on 30 miles east in Tallahassee, where Rep. Jimmy Patronis (R-Panama City) and Sen. Wilton Simpson (R-New Port Richey) filed measures to scale back a local government’s authority to regulate its environment and manage growth.
Specifically, the companion bills preempt a county’s attempts to adopt, revise or implement extra regulations dealing with wetlands, springs and storm water facilities if said changes were proposed after July of 2003. Proponents of the changes say they’ll help streamline permitting and make conducting business easier. But Charles Pattinson of 1000 Friends of Florida, an environmental advocacy group, says counties have taken the lead in regulating their environments out of necessity.
“You know when you look at the water quality situation around the state and you see what’s happened with the strict reliance on state and federal permit controls, it’s pretty easy to understand why many local governments would want to have some tighter control,” Pattinson points out.
He says the bills are nothing more than attempts to usurp control from local governments in favor of large land developers and agricultural interests. He also finds the bill’s permitting duration changes troubling -- both measures would allow water management districts to issue 30-year-long permits to commercial water users.
But Phillip Leary, a lobbyist for the agricultural industry, argues the law does nothing more than clarify existing statute.
“Section One clarifies the intent of the Legislature when they adopted the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act, which essentially eliminated duplication of regulation by cities and counties,” Leary explains.
That law, passed in 2011, carved out very specific agricultural exemptions from another 2011 law, the Community Development Act, which actually forced the state to cede growth-management control to counties.
But environmentalists like Pattinson think long-term permits are dangerous and don’t allow for continuous and thorough review of a business’ operations. And he contends the most worrisome provisions of both measures stem from the limits they puts on county government and individual voters. Although mostly stricken from the Senate version, both measures originally included restrictions on voter referendums that sought to implement environmental protection rules. Pattinson calls preempting a county’s voting procedure just another way the state is overreaching.
“Some local governments have chosen to put a super majority, which means of course a majority plus one of the sitting commissioners, typically that’s been done to protect certain important environmental or policy features in a local comprehensive plan,” Pattinson says.
Many counties have already instituted that type of rule, and in Wakulla County an environmentalist-led voter referendum is seeking to do just that. Still, it isn’t clear whether the companion bills will align before the end of the legislative session.