A bill that would drastically limit the state's ability to stop wetlands from destruction has passed a legislative committee.
The bill, HB 1349, says that anyone who wants to destroy a wetland simply needs to turn in an application that's been "prepared and signed by … scientists, engineers, geologists, architects or other licensed professionals."
As long as the application is filled out properly and signed by a licensed professional, who certifies the wetland destruction won't lead to water pollution problems, it "shall be presumed to comply" with the law and must be approved. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill Thursday.
If state regulators decide to deny the permit anyway, the bill says, then the developer can challenge it in court — and the burden of proof will be on regulators to show why the wetland was worth saving.
If someone who lives next door to the proposed development wants to challenge the permit, the bill says, the burden of proof is on the challenger, not on the developer who wants to pave over the wetland.
"It's a license to kill," said Roy "Robin" Lewis of Tampa, an environmental consultant for more than 30 years. "This bill has nothing to do with proper management of wetlands in Florida."
He also pointed out that engineers, geologists and architects are not wetland experts.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said he is "a big believer in preservation of the environment." He said his bill won't lessen the protection for the state's wetlands, but instead "we're creating some respect … that's been missing" from state regulators when they deal with developers.
He acknowledged that his measure was intended to be "an agitator" to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
But Patronis, who owns a seafood restaurant, compared the move to defrosting a refrigerator and tossing out all the food, something he said that should be done from time to time.
"Sometimes you need to unplug these state buildings and clean them out and start over," he said. "Everything deserves a good cleaning out."
Patronis, whose wife runs a real estate business, said he felt a little uneasy about his bill when it reached the committee hearing because it "sucked all the air out of the room," he said.
But when he offered to hold it for later consideration, "the committee members said no, don't, we want to vote this out," he said. The bill passed 13-4, with bipartisan support.
"There were Democrats and Republicans who thought my (bill) was a good idea," he said. "The committee found sympathy with my argument."
But environmental advocates termed it "outrageous."
"This is not streamlining," said Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida. "This is a reduction in environmental protection."
Current state and federal laws say protecting wetlands is presumed to be in the public interest. Scientists have found that wetlands stem flooding, recharge the underground drinking water supply, filter pollution and provide vital habitat to wildlife.
Yet, despite policies that says there should be no net loss of wetlands, a St. Petersburg Times analysis of satellite imagery found that between 1990 and 2003 Florida lost 84,000 acres of wetlands that were converted to homes, stores, roads, parking lots and other urban uses. Add in mining and agriculture, and the total amount is likely to be nearer 100,000 acres.
Current state law requires regulators to make a decision on wetlands destruction permits within 90 days, and if they miss the deadline, the permit is automatically approved. A Times analysis of DEP permits found that they were being approved in an average of 44 days.