Session wrap-up: Environmental issues

Septic tank legislation, state permitting changes and millions of dollars for Everglades restoration and land-buying capped off a relatively under-the-radar legislative session for environmental issues.

Despite being overshadowed by insurance, redistricting and higher education issues, to name a few, environmental groups say they had better session than last, with both legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott both being more amendable to their input.

"I found a greater willingness on the part of leadership to work on compromises on many of these issues," said Janet Bowman, legislative director for the Nature Conservancy. "The governor, too, had much greater outreach this session and we worked well with his office on a number of issues."

Atop the list, the $70 billon budget includes $30 million for Everglades restoration. A priority of the governor, money for the state's share of clean-up efforts was earmarked early in the process, and both chambers went along.

Not so with Florida Forever. The state's latest rendition of a decades' long land-buying effort was under the knife as lawmakers attempted to fill a $1.4 billion hole in the state budget. In the end, however, lawmakers found $8 million to put toward managing and lease arrangements, though the state won't purchase any new land for now.

"It wasn't a lot of money, but it was a strong recommitment to the programs," said Eric Draper of Florida Audubon.

Among the most closely watched water issues was a repeal of a statewide septic tank inspection program that critics said was too expensive. The measure, included in a Department of Health agency bill, would still allow inspections in counties that have first magnitude springs.

But Kurt Spitzer, executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association, said the group is concerned the bill may prevent cities and counties that already have ordinances in place from keeping them on the books.

"It seems to go a little further than we had wished and limits the ability of local governments to establish rules on their own," Spitzer said.

Water management districts

Stung last year by a bill that stripped them of more than $200 million in funding, Florida water management districts got a bit of a reprieve this year as lawmakers restored some of the regional boards' ability to bring in revenue, and laid off deeper cuts.

Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1986, which lifted revenue caps in exchange for requiring heightened legislative oversight. Specifically, the bill would require an annual review, but would allow districts to again determine their appropriate funding levels.

In addition, the final version rolled back some of the oversight provisions that were envisioned in earlier drafts and relaxed some stricter requirements that environmental groups found too onerous.

"The lifting of the water managements caps was very encouraging," Bowman said. "There seems to be a recognition that the water management districts needed to have the revenue available to meet regional and statewide needs."

Streamlined enviro permitting

The wide-ranging House Bill 503 that makes a number of changes in the environmental permitting process, including prohibiting local governments from making a development permit conditional on having some other state permit, passed the Legislature the day before lawmakers called it quits.

The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, deregulated certain injection wells and set a time limit on some permit applications. The bill also removes agency approval requirements for small stormwater projects and extends deadlines for certain environmental resource permits.

Other issues that didn't pass included:

-HB 695, a measure that would let land management agencies enter into public-private partnerships with businesses to develop oil and gas on some onshore state lands under certain conditions.

-SB 604, a measure to restrict local laws regulating urban fertilizer application was killed before hitting the Senate floor.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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