County says bill would endanger local wetlands
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 7:54 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 7:54 p.m.
House Bill 703, a wide-ranging, controversial piece of environmental regulation legislation, has drawn opposition from Alachua County government in part because it would nullify a portion of the county’s long-held wetlands protection policy, forcing the county to abide by less-protective state policies.
The state bill, which has a Senate companion, would prohibit local governments from enforcing certain springs protection and stormwater or wetlands regulations if these regulations have been modified or readopted since July 1, 2003.
Wetlands are critical to preventing further degradation of the springs, Alachua County Environmental Protection Director Chris Bird said. Taking away local governments’ ability to better protect wetlands basically leaves pricey restoration projects as the only remaining recourse, Bird said.
“We call them nature’s kidneys, and they filter pollution,” Bird said of wetlands. “They don’t require some big government appropriation to do it. They just do it.”
Alachua County also has other concerns with the bill, Bird said, which he believes as a whole would cause environmental damage statewide that would outweigh the improvements afforded by the $55 million in springs funding Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.
HB 703 was filed by state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, who had not by late Friday returned phone messages seeking comment.
Bird also said claims by the bill’s proponents that the pre-emption provision eliminates duplicative regulations is misleading.
Alachua County has had a wetlands policy in place since 1992 but updated its Unified Land Development Code in 2006, which included updating the wetlands policy, he said.
The county’s policy initially established protections for wetlands such as 35-foot buffers, he said. When the county updated its land development code, it increased those buffers for some lands but had to keep the original 35-foot buffer for agricultural lands because of the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act, a state law passed in 2003 that banned counties from adopting regulations limiting the activities of bona fide farm operations on agricultural land if they already were being regulated through best management practices or other specified measures.
The law didn’t limit a county government’s ability to enforce related springs protection, stormwater or wetlands rules that had been adopted prior to July 1, 2003, but HB 703 would exclude modifications approved on or after that date, which would include part of Alachua County’s wetlands policy.
Phil Leary of Leary Governmental Affairs Consultants said counties were duplicating regulations and further restricting agricultural operations, costing the farms time and money, which the 2003 law addressed. The best management practices work, Leary said, and farmers who don’t implement them still can be regulated by county government.
Leary said he worked on developing the pre-emption language in HB 703 that would invalidate part of Alachua County’s wetlands policy, among other regulations, on behalf of the Alachua County Farm Bureau, and Leary asked Patronis to include it in his legislation.
Attorney Frank Matthews of the firm Hopping Green & Sams and another attorney from the same firm helped him develop that section, Leary said. Matthews had not responded by late Friday to The Sun’s request for comment.
Alachua County is essentially ignoring the Agricultural Lands and Practices Act, of which he was a co-author years ago when he worked for the Florida Farm Bureau, Leary said.
“Alachua County EPD are out there trying to continue to justify their existence and their jobs. I mean, it’s a complete duplication,” Leary said.
“Show me where there’s environmental degradation or impacts that those additional regulations are going to address. They’re not.”
Rather than spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on a lawsuit, which is still an option, Leary said he and his client, the Alachua County Farm Bureau, decided to try clarifying the issue legislatively through Patronis’ bill.
Leary provided a letter that the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services sent to Alachua County in December that stated the county’s wetlands regulations regarding relevant agricultural operations conflict with the 2003 state law because the 1992 rules were repealed when the current ones were adopted.
Alachua County government disagrees, Bird said.
Aside from the pre-emption provision that concerns Alachua County government, HB 703 would allow water-use permits of as long as 50 years for landowners participating in water storage programs and permits of as long as 30 years for developments of regional impact located in rural areas of critical economic concern. Alachua County is not one of those state-designated rural areas.
Audubon Florida’s primary concern with the bill is its water-use permitting provisions, Audubon Legislative Director Mary Jean Yon said, although Audubon Florida opposes the proposed pre-emptions as well.
This is the fourth time in as many years that Patronis has introduced a broad environmental regulation bill like this, she said, and two of the prior three have passed with changes that, she said, weren’t usually positive ones.
“To be fair, every year there’s a couple things in there where you just go, ‘Well, that’s not so bad. That’s not the end of the world,’” she said. “But that’s not the tenor of the bill.”
Patronis’ environmental bills are known for the damage they do, not the good they do, Yon said.
Audubon Florida Executive Director Eric Draper said the provision for 50-year permits basically turns the permits into an incentive to participate in water storage programs. Plus, issuing a 50-year permit means the public will have no say in how that water is used for half a century.
“We shouldn’t pay people with permits,” he said.
Patronis didn’t write this bill, Draper said. Lobbyists did, and he compiled everything into a single piece of legislation.
“No one thinks this bill is a good idea except for the developers that have special favors in the bill,” Draper said.
Although some developers have been involved in this legislation, Draper said he hasn’t seen Plum Creek, which is the largest private landowner in Alachua County, engaged on this issue.
General Manager Todd Powell of Plum Creek confirmed that in a statement emailed to The Sun and noted that Plum Creek doesn’t have a position on the bill.
“We’re not a part of the discussion on HB 703, and this bill seems to represent the old way of doing things — fights at the local level get decided upon by the Legislature,” he said. “Plum Creek, through the Envision Alachua process, is taking a different approach. We want to set a new standard of working with the community to resolve issues.”