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Florida Legislature aims to control local water, growth rules

Medium concentration levels of Karenia brevis, the algae that causes red tide, were detected in water samples taken in early November 2022 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission near Longboat Pass.

Medium concentration levels of Karenia brevis, the algae that causes red tide, were detected in water samples taken in early November 2022 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission near Longboat Pass.

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As Florida’s Legislature begins its regular session next week with a plan to tee up a host of culture war issues that Gov. Ron DeSantis can use as his “blueprint” for America’s future, another list of proposals is getting less attention but is being quietly cheered by powerful industries.

Dozens of local government preemption bills have been introduced to stifle municipal authority over water quality and quantity, restrict citizen opposition to development plans, give businesses new avenues to sue, and repeal long-standing environmental rules.

Many are on the fast-track.

“This legislative session is shaping up as the ‘Session of Sprawl’ — the worst blow to sound community planning in more than a decade,’’ proclaimed 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit, smart-growth advocacy organization in its pre-session briefing materials.

Environmental advocates say that, if passed, many of the bills could release dozens of growth management safety valves and unleash unfettered development as Florida’s communities strain to accommodate an estimated 900 newcomers a day.

“Hundreds of people per day continue to move to Florida, and it is absolutely imperative that we plan, in a meticulous, very cautious, very considered way,’’ said Gil Smart, executive director of VoteSmart, a clean water advocacy organization. “These bills are pretty much the exact opposite of that.”

The Florida Association of Counties is watching 58 preemption bills that have been introduced for this legislative session, ranging from reversing an Orange County rental control referendum to encouraging development on agriculture land and regulating how cities haul trash.

‘Exceedingly broad’

“They’re exceedingly broad, horribly vague and, as they are drafted, would completely remove the ability of cities and counties to protect water, ensure there is sufficient quantity of water, prevent illegal dumping, regulate litter, waste tires and animal waste, manage fertilizer on lawns, prevent the proliferation of algae blooms, regulate open fire pits and outdoor burning, and stifle our ability to comply with federal and state requirements of the Clean Water Act,’’ said Rebecca O’Hara, a lawyer with the Florida League of Cities.

But for the builders, developers and related industries poised to take advantage of Florida’s status as the fastest growing state in the nation, many of the regulations established by 67 counties and 411 municipalities would be better addressed by the state, their lobbyists say.

“Development is a reality, and we’ve got to figure out the most responsible way of doing that,’’ said Adam Basford, vice president of Associated Industries of Florida, the business-backed lobbying group. “Businesses need as much predictability and consistency in the regulatory structure as we can so that they know what they’re getting into before they start a project.”

The bill that has drawn the most attention from smart-growth advocates is HB 1197/SB 1240 that would prevent counties and cities from adopting laws, regulations, rules or policies relating to water quality, water quantity, pollution control, pollutant discharge or wetlands.

‘Water as a weapon’

“Cities and counties are using water as a weapon to slow down their growth. That is not what water is meant to do,’’ said Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, the sponsor of the bill who served for more than a decade on the Southwest Florida Water Management District Board, the water authority for the Tampa Bay region and adjacent areas of inland Central Florida.

He said the impetus for the bill was that he “heard stories” about cities and counties requiring residents to obtain a water permit “even if the water management district allows it” but, when pressed, could not provide an example.

Maggard brought the idea to Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephryhills, who agreed to sponsor the Senate version of the bill. Burgess said the bill “starts the conversation on how we best pass on the natural Florida we love to future generations.”

“The concept is simple,’’ Burgess explained. “Because water doesn’t follow local boundaries, the state has an interest in managing it. A river that starts in Leon County can flow through a dozen local communities before depositing in Tampa Bay. I believe that the state, through [Department of Environmental Protection] and our water management districts, has the expertise and know-how to responsibly manage our precious water supply.”

Environmentalists said they acknowledge the state plays an essential role, and it is not realistic to have 67 counties doing entirely different things, but they said the bill is overreaching and has the potential to go far beyond water.

Local government role targeted

“This does nothing but undermine local attempts to improve water quality,’’ said Smart of VoteWater. The state is already struggling to reach its pollution control standards, he said, and there is no indication legislators will give regulators more resources.

Maggard said that if his bill passes, and local governments are no longer allowed to prevent pollution, there is no need for additional state resources.

“All the management districts have offices and staff throughout the whole state,” he said. “This is nothing new. What we’re seeing is the cities now want to do their own thing, and sometimes that’s not a smart move.”

Many counties have established ordinances to help enforce state water quality standards by regulating fertilizers and impose setbacks on lakes and water bodies, O’Hara said.

Martin County, for example, has a strict wetlands ordinance in the unincorporated county that prohibits the destruction of wetlands, which are needed to provide a buffer to development and keep water clean, Smart said. “It looks like this bill would scuttle that,’’ he said.

Eve Samples, executive director of the Friends of the Everglades said local governments are needed to help continue these efforts, especially at a time when pollution has contributed to another red tide bloom on the state’s west coast, manatees are dying at record levels, “and water managers are predicting an intense blue-green algae bloom on Lake Okeechobee this spring.”

“Our state agencies have their hands full addressing their responsibilities for water cleanup without the Legislature eliminating the share our local governments have been handling,’’ said Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit, smart-growth advocacy organization. “This really is burdening FDEP without providing the requisite resources to adequately oversee this important work.”

Smart predicts that the result will be more pavement will lead to “increased storm water runoff load, which is going to result in increased nutrient loads in our water.”

The environmental and growth advocates say they hope that the governor, who has been pro-environment, will be a backstop and signal his opposition to many of these bills.

What will DeSantis do?

DeSantis signed an executive order in January that called for the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Economic Opportunity, and local governments to work together “to improve local government long-term comprehensive planning that ensures sustainable growth while protecting our natural resources.”

“It was actually pretty exciting to see the phrase long-term comprehensive planning coming from an administration. We haven’t heard those words in a long time,’’ saidWest of 1000 Friends of Florida.

Here are some of the growth-related preemption bills:

HB 439 by Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala, redefines “sprawl” as “unplanned development,’’ increases incentives for agricultural land to be developed by expanding the definition of an “agricultural enclave” from 1,000 residents to 1,000 residential units (houses or apartments), and prevents local governments from rejecting proposed development if it increases pressure on roads, schools, and sewer and water systems.

SB 346/HB 383 by Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Philip Wayne Griffitts, R-Panama City Beach, would give local governments 180 days to review proposed zoning changes, variance approvals and other development. The timeline is within the normal schedule for large cities like Miami, but smaller communities say they will have to hire additional staff to meet the deadline or approve changes without adequate review.

SB 1346/HB 1371 by Sen. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, and Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, prohibits local governments from preventing private developers from demolishing certain historic buildings located in coastal high hazard areas, designated as FEMA flood zones, and may not impose conditions on the replacement structure.

SB 170 by Sen. Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, is a version of a measure promoted last year by Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, as a way to curb the number of preemption bills filed when industries are frustrated by local government ordinances. Under the measure, local governments would be required to prepare a business impact statement before enacting an ordinance.

The new measure also creates a new cause of action for a business challenging a local ordinance and would require the local government to pay attorneys fees. After months of negotiations and modifications, the Florida Leagues of Cities this year said it supports the bill.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and @MaryEllenKlas

Mary Ellen Klas is an award winning state Capitol bureau chief for the Miami Herald, where she covers government and politics and focuses on investigative and accountability reporting. In 2023, she shared the Polk award for coverage of the Gov. Ron DeSantis’ migrant flights. In 2018-19, Mary Ellen was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and received the Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.Please support our work with a digital subscription. Sign up for Mary Ellen’s newsletter Politics and Policy in the Sunshine State. You can reach her at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.
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