They were told to be bold. They were told to come up with something dramatic to shrink state government and create jobs. They were given 20 days to do it.
So the team that Gov.-elect Rick Scott asked to advise him on how to reform the state's growth and environmental regulations proposed something bold: Merge the state's environmental, growth management and transportation departments into a single agency called the Department of Growth Leadership.
And permitting decisions from any state agency should consider "job creation and economic development" as being just as important as having clean water and air, the regulatory reform committee told Scott this week in a 79-slide report.
Those recommendations spell out a dim future for Floridians who aren't fond of pavement, predicted environmental activist Linda Young of the Clean Water Network.
"The message is, 'We are going to have a feeding frenzy on your natural resources and tax dollars, and you are going to have jack … to say about it, so get used to it,' " Young said.
Getting the Legislature to approve merging the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Community Affairs next year would improve how the state deals with the pressures of development, according to the report from the committee, which is chaired by a former developer.
Instead of regulations aimed at stopping bad development, the committee said, the "regulatory policy objective (would be) to help make good development happen."
"I don't know what they were thinking," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida, who contended there is little or no overlap among the three agencies' duties. He predicted that any legislative attempt at merging them is "going to run into a morass very quickly."
But Tampa Bay Water general manager Jerry Seeber, a former New Port Richey city manager who served on the regulatory reform committee, said consolidating at least two agencies, the DOT and Community Affairs, makes sense to him.
"The DOT, from a city manager's perspective, has always done a good job of planning," he said. "They get things done."
The state's environmental and growth management agencies are mired in "regulatory mistrust, competition, duplication and conflict," the committee warned in its slide show.
One slide says the state's environmental regulators had gone from a mission of "protection" in the 1970s to one of "suppression" in the 2000s — even though that was during the two terms of business-friendly Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
"You go into the agencies and it's almost like you're the enemy," complained Doug Manson, a Tampa lawyer who has represented utilities and bottled water companies, and who chaired the environmental subcommittee of the regulatory reform group. He said the regulators' attitude is, "How do we suppress or stop development?"
That's news to environmental advocates like Young, who has spent years battling agencies she viewed as accommodating developers instead of protecting the environment. Once the real estate boom that occurred during Bush's term turned to bust, state officials calculated that Florida had a backlog of more than 300,000 vacant homes, she pointed out.
The report blames that overbuilding spree on a regulatory setup that's too antagonistic to growth. It also blames it for urban sprawl — unplanned growth that spreads beyond the limits of existing water and sewer lines and other public resources.
That argument "doesn't seem to match very well with the actual facts," said Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida, a growth management activist group.
To Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who served in the state Senate from 1994 to 2002 and was just re-elected, the proposed merger is "just a real reach" — but mostly based on logistics.
"I think that's far too ambitious a project to undertake with just under 60 days before the start of the legislative session," he said.
The committee offered other proposals:
• Abolish some long-standing rules regulating large projects known as Developments of Regional Impact.
• Prohibit public entities from suing each other, which would end counties battling over access to water supplies or trying to block phosphate mining upstream.
• Streamline even more the state wetland permitting process — which now, by law, must produce a decision in just 45 days.
• Stop local governments like Hillsborough County from enforcing their own, more restrictive regulations protecting wetlands, something developers have been pushing the Legislature to do for years.
"We knew that would be controversial," Manson said.
• Open up the state's award-winning public lands to moneymaking uses — for instance, putting solar panels, windmills or a wood-burning biomass electrical plant in state parks.
The Regulatory Reform Transition Team was chaired by Chris Corr, vice president for planning, design and development for the global builder and designer AECOM. In the 1990s, Corr helped develop the 5,000-acre town of Celebration for the Walt Disney Corp. He then served until 2008 as vice president of the St. Joe Co., which spent the past decade transforming its Panhandle pine forests into residential and commercial developments. He could not be reached for comment.
Two other former St. Joe executives, Peter Rummell and Billy Buzzett, also served on the 29-member committee, along with a sugar company executive and the president of a Sarasota home building company.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8530.