Friday, February 20, 2009

Florida environmental and wildlife news for the week ending 2-20-09


Ed. Note: The article below details an attempt by radical right-wing members of the Florida Legislature to implement sweeping deregulation designed to make it easier for developers to obtain permits to wipe out wetlands, access dwindling drinking water supplies and destroy endangered species habitat. See the end of the article for more info and stay tuned for ways to take action against these short-sighted proposals.

Legislators envision less regulation as salve for Florida's economy
By Craig Pittman and Matthew Waite
St. Pete Times

Florida legislative leaders want to make it easier to get permits to destroy wetlands, tap the water supply and wipe out endangered species habitat, all in the interest of building houses, stores and offices.

They say streamlining the permitting process will get the economy moving again.

"We've got to get permits going and flowing," said Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers. "We need to make some incentives for people to revitalize our economy."

But opponents, ranging from Audubon of Florida to the Florida League of Cities, say making permits easier to get ultimately would hurt the economy and the environment.

State officials estimate more than 300,000 Florida houses are vacant. Why add more, asked Audubon's Eric Draper.

"We do not believe the current environmental regulatory structure is the root cause of our economic problems," agreed Kurt Spitzer, who lobbies for the Florida Stormwater Association. "The problem with the Florida economy is declining home prices and tightening credit."

The groups pushing for looser permitting include such politically powerful entities as Associated Industries, the Florida Home Builders Association and the Association of Florida Community Developers.

"We need to be creating conducive conditions for more growth," said Frank Matthews, who lobbies for the builders and developers. "You know what the Florida economy is based on. It's an article of faith that those houses will one day be occupied. (The recession) is not going to last forever."

Associated Industries president Barney Bishop has been passing out a booklet headlined "Economic Stimulus Package 2.0." It prioritizes something called "Regulatory Relief," which says, "Policymakers must look at reductions in regulatory red tape as a way to stimulate business activity.''

Bishop pointed to impact fees that local governments charge developers to help pay for roads, schools, sewer lines and other public facilities for new residents. He suggested a temporary suspension of those fees, as well as easing the challenge to such fees in the future.

Senate Bill 630, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would block local governments from collecting impact fees on new development through 2012. Another Bennett bill, Senate Bill 360, calls for eliminating most state growth-management review of big, new developments proposed for Hillsborough County and a host of other cities and counties around Florida.

The home builders, meanwhile, want to reduce the number of agencies that have a say on development permits. Matthews called it "less overlap, less duplication."

Take endangered species habitat, he said. Right now a federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Widlife Service, as well as the state's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and various local governments all get to comment on permits regarding destruction of that habitat.

"We like the idea of having a single regulatory body in charge of a single subject matter," he said.

The same goes for Florida's wetlands. Wiping out wetlands requires a permit from the state that says the project won't harm water quality, and another from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that says it's in the public interest under the Clean Water Act.

However, those agencies rarely reject a permit, which is why Florida lost an estimated 84,000 acres of wetlands to houses, stores, roads and parking lots between 1990 and 2003, according to a St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery.

The state's wetlands permitting criteria have failed to halt pollution from fertilizer-laden stormwater runoff, which has spurred toxic algae blooms in the St. Johns River and other waterways. Last month U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials announced they would impose new, tougher runoff restrictions because the state's criteria weren't working.

Some counties such as Hillsborough have their own wetland rules that are more stringent than the state or federal regulations. The builders have tried before to pre-empt those local rules.

"We're hoping we can move the ball forward a little more," Matthews said.

Williams said she was charged with pushing regulatory reform by former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

Sansom's ties to a Panhandle developer and a community college led to a grand jury investigation and his ouster from that post this month. But Williams said she and other leaders are still pursuing a rollback in regulations.

Williams, an engineer who has worked for some of Florida's biggest developers, chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee, which has a scheduled workshop today. The agenda lists one item for the two-hour meeting: "Workshop on streamlined permitting issues."

Williams said she wants to hear other people's ideas for speeding up permits, but she has a few of her own. For one thing, she said, she'd like to see the state water managers make it easier to get permits to take large quantities of water for new development.

Williams said she would also like to see the state wetlands permitting process cut in half. State law now requires approval or rejection of a permit within 90 days or the permit is automatically approved. She suggested cutting that to 45 days. A Times analysis of state permits found that in 2003 the average processing time was 44 days.

Doing a job on growth controls
By Joel Engelhardt
Palm Beach Post
In the name of economic stimulus, the Legislature is about to do what it couldn't do under eight years of Gov. Jeb Bush: Kill growth management.

As U.S. Tightens Environmental Rules, Cash-Strapped States Loosen Them
By Josh Harkinson
Mother Jones
The stimulus package is an environmental boon, the EPA will probably regulate carbon, and Sen. Harry Reid wants to take a green pen to the Energy Bill.

Find information including bill text for Senate Bill 360 here.
Find information including bill text for Senate Bill 630 here.
Read the Florida Today editorial opposing this reckless legislation here.
Subscribe to our blog for updates and ways to take action on this and other Florida environmental and wildlife issues.

Great blue heron in Fred George Basin


Bill could block Everglades land deal
By Bruce Ritchie
Florida Environmental News
A Senate committee chairman has introduced a bill that could be used to block Florida's purchase of up to 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. for Everglades restoration.

Scientists: Pace of Climate Change Exceeds Estimates
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post
The pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than recent predictions, because industrial greenhouse gas emissions have increased more quickly than expected and higher temperatures are triggering self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms in global ecosystems, scientists said Saturday.

Birds and Climate Change: On the Move
Audubon Society
Related: Take Action: Birds and Climate Change: Ecological Disruption in Progress
Nearly 60% of the 305 species found in North America in winter are on the move, shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles.

Prolific Florida panther Don Juan lands in Homosassa Springs retirement home
By Jeff Klinkenberg
St. Pete Times
Related: Click here to visit the Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge website.
The wind blew in the panther's favor. He smelled me before he saw me, and saw me before I saw him. "He's got a bead on you,'' Susan Lowe whispered.

Senate president says auto emissions not dead despite setback
By Bruce Ritchie
Florida Environmental News
Related AP story: Crist optimistic about Fla. auto emissions plan
Senate President Jeff Atwater said today he thinks Florida's possible adoption of California's proposed auto emissions standards will remain an issue in the upcoming legislative session despite committee action this week against the measure.

Coastal Wetlands In Eastern U.S. Disappearing
Science Daily
While the nation as a whole gained freshwater wetlands from 1998 to 2004, a new report by NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents a continuing loss of coastal wetlands in the eastern United States.

Photos trace Florida reef fish decline
Press Release
United Press International
A U.S. researcher has used historic photographs as evidence of fishing's impact on marine ecosystems and the decline of "trophy fish."

Desalination plant subject of study
By Peter Guinta
Florida Times-Union
A consortium of Central Florida cities late last week proposed a plan that would require building 500 miles of interconnected water pipelines and withdrawing 262 million gallons of water per day from the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers.

Rethink nuclear plant law
St. Pete Times
Progress Energy Florida's announcement last week that it wants to roll back surcharges was welcome relief for electric customers still whipsawed from January's 24 percent rate increase.

Endangered bird thriving in Blackwater River State Forest
Special to the Pelican
Pensacola News Journal
Officials with the Florida Division of Forestry report a very productive 2008 nesting season for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker population at Blackwater River State Forest, Florida's largest state forest.

'There are bird-watchers and there are birders'
By Amy Mariani
Orlando Sentinel
Gallus Quigley Jr. is a birder. He has seen about 640 species in his lifetime, and only a Philadelphia Flyers game might bring him in from the outdoors.

Wildwood Preservation Society is a non-profit 501(c)(4) project of the Advocacy Consortium for the Common Good. Click here to learn more.

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