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Amendment 1: At Session Midpoint, Disappointment Replaces Promise

What had become the “year of the environment” for the 2015 legislative session has become a year of disappointment for some environmentalists.

Amendment 1 and statewide water policy were major issues heading into the session, with growth management also emerging once the opening gavel dropped.

Approved by 75 percent of voters in November, Amendment 1 provides an estimated $742 million for water and land conservation programs.

But the House-proposed spending plan includes at least $10 million for land-buying – House leaders say it’s $205 million for the Florida Forever program – while the Senate is proposing $37 million. Environmental groups say both proposals ignore voters on Amendment 1.

Senate and House water bills would replace a Lake Okeechobee pollution permitting program with “basin action management plans.” Supporters say the bills provide statewide consistency for permitting, but environmental groups say the basin plans lack enforcement.

With Florida coming out of the recession and with a record level of revenue, environmentalists had hoped that environmental spending would be restored from earlier cuts, said Charles Pattison, policy director of 1000 Friends of Florida.

“You would hope that would mean better stewardship of our resources, whether it was land management or land acquisition, (and) managing water resources as well,” he said. “I think people are just generally disappointed there hasn’t been more comprehensive and widespread discussion of both of those topics.”

Sens. Thad Altman and Darren Soto, both of whom last week offered but later withdrew budget amendments to boost spending on land-buying, also expressed disappointment. The Senate agreed to add $35 million for land-buying after initially proposing $2 million.

“I’m very disappointed with where we are now in both the House and the Senate – extremely disappointed,” said Altman, a Republican from Melbourne. “I hope the Legislature listens. I know the people are making their voices heard.”

“While we had some progress, it clearly was not enough yet,” said Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee.

Eric Draper of Audubon Florida said he felt a shift in tone recently as people flooded legislators with calls requesting more money for land-buying.

“I think as people are waking up around the state and getting more engaged,” he said, “I’m hoping we’ll see a different tone from legislators.”

In addition to environmental issues, seven House bills have been combined into one growth management bill, HB 933. It would eliminate the state “developments of regional impact” review program and presume that “constrained” agricultural lands proposed for development are not prohibited “urban sprawl.”

Industry groups and developers are supporting the bill while environmentalists, cities and counties are raising concerns. And there is some skepticism on both sides that the legislation can pass both chambers.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Trilby, is sponsoring five of the Senate bills that were combined into the House bill. He describes the legislation as “clean-up” for growth management rather than a significant policy change.

He said eliminating the development of regional impact process and moving those large developments into the streamlined state “coordinated review” process will encourage large-scale planning rather than smaller developments.

On Amendment 1 spending, he said people all over the state have different ideas where the focus should be. In North Florida, he said, they want money spent on springs, while in South Florida they want more spent Everglades restoration – and there are other spending priorities on both coasts.

With the changes in water policy, growth management and legislation to structure the Amendment 1 spending process, “I think this is going to be a great session for the environment,” Simpson said.

Bruce Richie (@bruceritchie) is an independent journalist covering environment and growth management issues in Tallahassee. He also is editor of Floridaenvironments.com.

This piece was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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