It seems like little more than bureaucratic tinkering. Bills now filed in the Florida House and Senate would change the definition of where something called the "ordinary high water line" is measured on waterways across Florida.
But hunting and fishing groups are up in arms, calling the bills a blatant land grab that will block them from pursuing their favorite pastimes.
"This is where we hunt," explained John Hitchcock, president of the United Waterfowlers of Florida.
Audubon of Florida, Earthjustice and 1,000 Friends of Florida have also condemned HB 1103 and SB 1362 as a stealthy move to privatize between 100,000 and 500,000 acres along the state's rivers, lakes and streams that currently belongs to taxpayers. It does not affect oceanfront land.
The bills' backers contend it's the state that's grabbing land, not private companies.
"There are thousands of acres of land out there that the state's going to grab that people are unaware of," said Sam Ard, who lobbies for the Florida Cattlemen's Association.
The House version of the bill passed its first committee last week on a 9-4 vote. So far the Senate bill has no set hearings.
Since Florida became a state in 1845, the public has owned all submerged land under navigable waterways. The boundary line between underwater public land and privately owned dry land is the "ordinary high water line."
Based on a string of court decisions dating back more than a century, the definition of where that line exists is "the ordinary or normal reach of water during the high-water season," according to an analysis by legal research service Westlaw.
Anyone wanting to use that public land for private profit — such as building a marina — would have to pay the state for a submerged land lease. Last year such leases brought in $12 million for the state.
The two proposed bills would change the "ordinary high water line" definition so public property would no longer include areas where the water rises due to annual rains. The dry season, not the wet, would determine the boundary between public and private land.
"Boaters could be arrested for standing on the shore fishing," said Charles Pattison of 1,000 Friends of Florida. "Hunters could get arrested for hunting in marshes that are dry in the low water season."
That's why Hitchcock is so dismayed: Florida's flat marshes are prime hunting areas that could suddenly change owners.
"You change the location of the line by a few inches, and you could lose thousands of acres," he said.
David Guest of Earthjustice said changing the definition affects only land around freshwater bodies and not along the beaches because there tides set the boundary line.
But he warned that one phrase in the bills that refers to "swamp and overflowed lands" would give new legitimacy to poorly drawn deeds from the 1800s that would allow landowners to lay claim to half of some rivers.
The House sponsor, Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, said he intended only to bring clarity to a longstanding legal problem by getting people on both sides to discuss the best solution.
"I'm not trying to take environmental land or to take rights away from people," said Goodson, a paving contractor. "These lands are not going to be raped, pillaged and plundered."
Ranchers, major landowners, timber companies and developers have pushed for this change since the 1980s, said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. The most recent attempt was in 2000 when backers contended the change would simply help clear confusion over who owns what. The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.
Ard contended that the confusion over ownership hasn't gone away. He said a rancher who had been paying taxes on 160 acres was told recently that the state owns 60 of those acres because the area was below the ordinary high water line.
He dismissed critics who say people with plans for developing what's now state-owned land are pushing the bills.
"The folks who are screaming that we're going to put a condo on every corner of the swamp, it's real far-fetched," the lobbyist said.
But to Hitchcock, what's far-fetched is that anyone would try to swipe taxpayers' property.
"This is our land," he said. "It has never been their land."
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]