Tight economy leads to “streamlining” bills

With the economy on the rocks, industry lobbyists are urging the Florida Legislature to adopt proposals to “streamline” state and local permitting. But some senators and environmentalists say many of those proposals may be disguised efforts to roll back environmental protection.

The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation last week delayed action on one streamlining bill, SB 852. Some senators questioned how the state could provide environmental protection under a shorter permit review timeline as established in the bill.

“We all want to create jobs and we all want good economic development,” Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said. “But I think we also have seen a lot of time things fly under the umbrella of economic development that aren’t (economic development).”

Other lobbyists say economic issues are raised on almost any bill involving environmental protection or rolling back regulations.

” ‘A crisis is a terrible thing to waste’ is the phrase going around,” David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, said today.

SB 360 would remove state oversight of land-use changes in “dense urban areas” with more than 1,000 people per square mile. Environmentalists say the bill would allow more development in sensitive areas of the state’s most populous counties.

HB 7049 would abolish the state land-planning agency, the Florida Department of Community Affairs. The department’s planning divisions would be moved to the Florida Department of State.

“This is the developers taking advantage,” said Denise Layne, of the Coalition for Responsible Growth in Hillsborough County. “I don’t believe its our processes in this state that brought development to its knees. It’s all over the country.”

Rep. Chris Dorworth, who spoke on behalf of the DCA bill as vice chairman of the Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee, said there is nothing about HB 7049 that is anti-environmental. He said the bill doesn’t change the state’s oversight of planning, it simply moves the function from one department to another.

“I think managing growth is critical,” said Dorthworth, R-Lake Mary.
“But doing it in a way that is successful for Florida’s businesses also is critical.”

The Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation delayed action on SB 852 after Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and committee chairman, said there were a slew of such streamlining bills on the way. The bill requires state agencies to complete their reviews of wetlands permit applications within 45 days rather than 90 days for new industries targeted by counties.

Associated Industries of Florida believes the state permitting process can be streamlined without harming the environment, said Keyna Cory, AIF’s chief lobbyist at the Capitol.

“No, we’re not asking for less oversight. We’re asking for the timeline to be sped up a little bit so we can get that (economic development) project up and running” she said.

But Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy director for Audubon of Florida, said the devil is in the details. Many state agencies have shrinking numbers of workers, she said, and reducing the time period for review could weaken environmental protection.

“There are a lot of agencies that are already functioning at capacity (and are) facing personnel reductions,” she said. “You can imagine that when you have to process a greater volume with less capacity there could be effects on the rigor of permitting review.”

In the House, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee today gave initial approval to a bill that provides a three-year extension for expired construction permits and prohibits local governments from adopting more stringent permitting standards than approved by the Legislature.

Environmental groups had opposed the measure but they said it was much improved. But they still have concerns along with the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

The economy “seems to infuse almost every issue” this session, said Scott Dudley, senior legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities.

Text and photos copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com