Florida rural lands rule withstands farm groups’ challenge

Florida farm groups supported the Rural Land Stewardship Act in 2001 because they said it would preserve agriculture while helping the economies of rural communities.

The bill created a pilot program that allowed landowners with between 50,000 and 250,000 acres to set aside land for conservation and agriculture in exchange for the ability to develop new towns consisting of homes, shopping centers, offices and industries.

The Legislature passed the bill in 2001 and amended the law in 2004 to remove limits on the amounts of land that it could apply to. But now those same farm groups that supported the bill in 2001 are on the losing side of a legal challenge to a Department of Community Affairs rule that implements the legislation.

The DCA rule requires local governments not only to get their local Rural Lands Stewardship programs approved but they also re required to request approval for each of those new towns. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Land Council and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation challenged the rule, saying the law didn’t require the additional comprehensive plan changes for those new towns.

“The process was supposed to be an incentive process,” Tom Beck, a former state planning chief who testified for the farm and business groups during an administrative hearing, told FloridaEnvironments.com today. “And what this does — having a second amendment (approval process) — it greatly increases the time that the landowner has to go through to get final approval.”

Administrative Law Judge Donald R. Alexander on Sept. 14 determined that the proposed rule does not exceed the department’s rule-making authority as the challengers claimed. He said the rule is consistent with the law, which he said sought to protect rural lands and further the principles of “rural sustainability.”

DCA held off on writing rules for the program when it was established as a pilot in 2001. But DCA began working on a rule after the 2004 changes led some landowners with hundreds of thousands of acres to inquire about getting development approval under the state law, according to Alexander’s final order.

Collier County had a rural lands program that was adopted in 1999. However, DCA in 2007 said the Collier County program was directing development toward agricultural lands rather than preserving them.

DCA began to hold rule-making hearings that same year and adopted the rule on Dec. 19, 2008. The legal challenge was filed on Jan. 9.

The department says the law maintains the economic value of rural land while controlling urban sprawl and protecting natural resources and the state’s agricultural economy.

“This ruling is an important one for the state,” DCA Secretary Tom Pelham said. “The Rural Lands Stewardship Area Program can play an important role in conserving agricultural and environmental lands.”

For more information on DCA’s Rural Lands Stewardship Area Program, go to www.dca.state.fl.us.

To see the judge’s ruling and other legal documents, go to the Division of Administrative Hearings web site at www.doah.state.fl.us..