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Protecting the economy, environment and waterways tops 1000 Friends' wish list for 2023

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Stephen Splane
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WUSF Public Media
Dead fish litter Pinellas County beaches during a red tide outbreak

The continued health of the state's waterways, beaches and natural preservation is key to keeping Florida's economy going, says the president of 1000 Friends of Florida.

Florida's ongoing bouts with red tide, blue-green algae and unbridled growth threaten the future prosperity of the state, according to 1000 Friends of Florida, a smart-growth advocacy group.

It has come up with a list of what it would like lawmakers to address during the upcoming legislative session. Executive director Paul Owens spoke with WUSF's Steve Newborn to discuss the group's top priorities.

What are 1000 Friends' priorities on the environment and growth from the Legislature?

One priority that we have that we see bipartisan support for, based on the last couple of years, is investment in land conservation. There's been a significant coalition that's formed around protecting the Florida wildlife corridor. And we're particularly interested, in that we support the preservation of wildlife, obviously, but a lot of the land in the Florida wildlife corridor is not appropriate for development. For other reasons, too. It's far away from urban areas, it's in areas that have no infrastructure, and that would turn into urban sprawl if it was developed. I think there are leaders in both parties who seem interested in sustaining that investment. So we're looking forward to that.

For the past few years, preserving that land was not much of a priority until the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expeditions took place. Does it surprise you how much of this has coalesced in the public eye?

Sure, I'll say that I'm pleasantly surprised by it. Because, as you know, there were several years where this priority was neglected, leading up to the last couple of years. But I think it makes sense. It's a bipartisan priority because it accomplishes so many things.

"The reason why an awful lot of people want to move here, why some top employers want to relocate here, is because of our environment. And it just makes good economic sense for us to continue to invest in protecting our environment."
- Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida

It protects the environment, but it also protects our economy. Our brand in Florida is our environment, the reason why people visit here, the reason why an awful lot of people want to move here, why some top employers want to relocate here, is because of our environment. And it just makes good economic sense for us to continue to invest in protecting our environment.

What are some of the other priorities that you're looking at for the upcoming session?

Well, one of our other funding priorities is a perpetual priority for us, and that's a full investment in affordable housing, as the Florida Statutes call for. And we've also come off a couple of good years after many lean years of funding for affordable housing, but this is an issue that's reached crisis throughout Florida. It's really essential that we invest in that. And there are obviously benefits for Floridians who are struggling to find places to live where they work. But there are benefits for employers in having a labor supply and in the health overall of Florida's economy.

As you know, the Sadowski Trust Fund (dedicated to provide funding for affordable housing) has been pretty much swept of money repeatedly during the past few years. I think last year was the first year maybe in recent memory that it wasn't. Do you see the Legislature coming around on that finally?

Well, I think it's notable that the incoming Senate president, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, has said that affordable housing is going to be one of her top priorities for the session. I think that portends pretty well for the category receiving the funding that it's supposed to receive in the session coming up.

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1,000 Friends of Florida

So tell us some of your other top priorities that you're looking at for the upcoming year.

Well, we have some policy priorities that we think are particularly relevant on the heels of the two hurricanes that Florida suffered through this (past) year. And one is to have a higher standard of review for development in areas that are vulnerable, coastal high hazard areas or in floodplains. One of the things the Legislature can do in addition, and there seems to be some momentum for, is to strengthen our building code to take more account of the risks of storm surge and flooding.

You know, after Hurricane Andrew, the building code was strengthened for wind damage, but it still needs to have stronger provisions for storm surge and flooding.

We think that's a good possibility in the session coming up. There are other things that could be done, for example, a requirement that flood history of a property be disclosed when the property is sold. A couple of years ago, the Legislature passed a law requiring sea-level rise impact studies for public investments in coastal areas that could be expanded to the entire state to take into account not only areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise, but also areas that are vulnerable to flooding. That would protect lives and property, but it would also protect taxpayers who are expected to finance those kinds of investments. We'd love to see the Legislature follow through.

"If we can reduce blue-green algae, and if we can reduce red tide, (it) would make whatever cost is involved more than worth it. ... I think it would be well worth whatever expense it imposes in terms of the benefit to the overall economy in Florida."
- Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida

Finally, on implementing the remaining recommendations from Gov. Ron DeSantis' Blue Green Algae Task Force. They put out a consensus report in 2019, with a whole series of recommendations, and only a fraction of those recommendations have been implemented so far. We'd love to see the Legislature go the rest of the way on that. The Legislature has put significant dollars into hardening coastal areas that may be vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding. We'd also like to see them work at the front end of the problem and start doing more to reduce our state's greenhouse gas emissions.

There's been so much talk about red tide and blue-green algae. There's been pressure in the past, but nothing much seems to happen. Why do you think that is? And do you think that maybe there's a tipping point that's being reached, where some of those recommendations from the task force will actually be implemented?

I certainly hope we're at that tipping point. I think there's a lot of resistance to this because there is a cost anytime you have more stringent regulation. But I think the overall benefit to our state, if we can reduce blue-green algae and if we can reduce red tide, (it) would make whatever cost is involved more than worth it. I can't predict whether or not we'll get there in this session coming up. But I think it would be well worth whatever expense it imposes in terms of the benefit to the overall economy in Florida.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.