TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators hit environmental advocates with a one-two punch in the final two days of the session, wiping out 30 years of growth management law and passing measures to restrict the public from challenging controversial development projects in the name of economic development.
"This will create jobs for Florida and this will help us turn Florida in the right direction," said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, as the Senate debated the growth management bill in the waning hours of the session on Friday.
The two bills were pushed through by Republican leaders, who used their majority to squelch Democratic attempts to weaken the bills.
The sweeping growth management bill was included in the budget bill, which was approved by the Senate late Friday night and was expected to pass later, perhaps today, in the House.
The bill dismantles the Department of Community Affairs and repeals the 1985 landmark law that requires developers to take into consideration the impact of their projects on the community and the environment. Its repeal was the priority of House Speaker Dean Cannon as well as Gov. Rick Scott, who campaigned on the promise of reducing regulations he believes hamper development in Florida.
The legislation shifts oversight of development from the state to local governments while giving the state the final say over development plans that affect regions or sensitive land considered "areas of critical state concern."
"What we really want the state of Florida to do is provide assistance when they ask, not stuff it down their throats," said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the Senate bill.
But environmentalists warn that the changes will dramatically change the future of Florida's land and water resources and harm the quality of life.
"More acres of wetlands will be drained and more farmland lost while we neglect to provide adequate funding for infrastructure in our cities," warned Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy. "Is this the Florida we want to leave our children?"
While the measure gives local governments added flexibility at imposing requirements on developers, it also restricts how far they can go. The bill bans cities and counties form imposing any impact fees for nonresidential development for two years and automatically extends all permits for large-scale developments for seven years.
Environmentalists tried and failed to soften the impact of the legislation, warning that it could open the door to unfettered growth in the name of economic development.
"People are going to wake up in a couple of years and see the results of this growth management and say, 'What can we do to keep our countryside from being chewed up by development,' " said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida. "And the answer will be nothing."
The original growth management laws were enacted to curb urban sprawl that burdened roads, utilities and water supplies. But legislators said that over the years the laws became too complicated.
The changes remove the requirement that schools, parks and roads be built along with the development that uses them but it allows local governments to decide whether they want to impose similar requirements.
The bill was such a priority that House and Senate leaders took the unusual move of tucking the House's growth management bill into a must-pass budget document.
Senate Democrats warned that the measure will have unintended consequences and complained at the speed with which they were being asked to take up the changes.
"This is a monumental step back, and I have reservations because we're doing so much so soon and it's almost transformative," said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.
On Thursday, legislators passed another bill regulating permitting, HB 993, and included a controversial measure to make it more difficult for citizens to challenge water permits. The proposal shifts the burden from developers, who previously had to prove a permitted project would not harm the environment, to citizens who must prove that the development will pollute water or land.
Opponents warned the law will encourage a Miami federal judge to make good on his threat last week of stripping the state of its authority to issue critical pollution discharge permits essential to the Everglades cleanup.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold scolded the state for repeated delays and "disingenuous" legal maneuvers by state lawmakers and agencies in attempts to reduce the flow of phosphorus into the River of Grass.
Rep. Ken Roberson, R-Port Charlotte, said that the bill "doesn't weaken anything with environmental regulations in Florida."
Legislative leaders had initially rejected changing the burden of proof on citizen challenges but they reversed themselves after being asked to revive it by Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard. The flip-flop brought a rebuke by Draper.
"It suggested that DEP is no longer an honest broker between the public and the polluters but will increasingly take the polluters' side," Draper said.
Both measures are expected to be signed by the governor.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.